Daytona 500 1 p.m. (Fox)

Jimmie Johnson: On the verge of NASCAR immortality

jutter@charlotteobserver.comFebruary 22, 2014 

DAYTONA500_21

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver (48) Jimmie Johnson celebrates his victory in the Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway on Sunday, February 24, 2013.

JEFF SINER — jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

  • Daytona 500

    1 p.m. (Fox)

— Jimmie Johnson is standing at the edge of NASCAR immortality.

There are those who hope he never takes the next step, leaving the sacred ground to Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt.

There are those who think this is a mere resting point for Johnson, that he is embarked on a Sprint Cup Series journey to define success for decades.

And then there is Johnson’s approach to the 2014 season, beginning with Sunday’s Daytona 500, and the chance to join Petty and Earnhardt as the only drivers to win seven Cup titles.

Repeatedly in recent seasons, Johnson has said he is not interested in chasing history.

The truth is, he’s not sure how he got here. When he was hired by Rick Hendrick, to drive for a team partially owned by NASCAR star Jeff Gordon, his resume was unspectacular.

“I had no clue what Rick saw, what Jeff saw at the time or the CEO of Lowe’s at the time, Robert Tillman – had no clue what he saw and they all believed,” Johnson said. “I was like, ‘Man, I wish I knew what you guys were believing in.’ 

A self-described “mid-packer,” he was the youngest driver in off-road racing, and struggled against the sport’s veterans.

“That wasn’t fun,” Johnson said. “It was great experience, but it wasn’t fun.”

He moved to stock cars and the American Speed Association, winning twice, before he got an opportunity in NASCAR, in what is now the Nationwide Series. He won one race in the series before he joined Hendrick Motorsports.

It seemed then, and still does today, almost an improbable journey.

“The bulk of my career I had to find peace or fulfillment out of purely just racing and loving my team and the people I’m around at the race track and all that comes with it,” Johnson said.

“I’d been racing 20-some years before I even got my opportunity at Hendrick so I had to find the right reasons to race for, and I still have those values today.”

‘Such a nice guy’

Johnson wasn’t going to pass up the opportunity at Hendrick Motorsports.

Johnson had developed a close friendship with Hendrick’s late son, Ricky, who was killed in a plane crash in 2004, so Rick Hendrick knew him. Ricky had told his father Johnson would one day be a “superstar.”

Gordon, who had watched Johnson’s progress on the track, believed it too.

Looking back, Hendrick admits he did not see the same thing he saw in Gordon, who was already considered a phenom when hired.

“I think the thing that appealed to me with Jimmie was the kind of person he was,” Hendrick said. “He was such a nice guy. I don’t think he had had the best equipment out there.

“It was almost like he was like family, since I’d known him since he was 16. When Jeff raced with him, he said Jimmie had a lot of talent.

“You want somebody that will fit in an organization. So, he was like part of the family, he’s got talent but we don’t know how much, but he’s going to fit in real well.”

Hendrick remained nervous. Lowe’s was coming on board as Johnson’s sponsor and wanted to know if the newcomer would be able to win at the Cup level.

So did, Hendrick. And Johnson.

‘I was scared’

On the surface, it looked like a dream come true.

When Johnson debuted full time in Cup in 2002, his No. 48 team, for the most part, used Gordon’s cars from 2001.

In those cars, Gordon had won six races and his fourth Cup series championship.

For Johnson, though, there were fears.

“I was scared when I started,” he said. “Jeff just won his championship – his fourth – and they were like, ‘We’re going to give you all his race cars and all that equipment. And no pressure, just go have fun.’

“I’m like, ‘Really? If I don’t win a race I’m going to be canned.’ 

The hand-me-down cars, Hendrick said, were a measuring stick to see if the organization, Johnson’s crew chief Chad Knaus, and Johnson were “all in the same ballpark.”

They were. Johnson and Knaus picked up their first Cup victory in the 10th race, at Auto Club Speedway in Johnson’s native California.

By the end of his rookie season, Johnson had three wins, and he finished fifth in the series standings.

“Looking back it, it looks like some big master plan,” Hendrick said. “I really didn’t have as strong a feeling with Jimmie as I had when I signed Jeff.

“I thought Jimmie would be a solid top-10 driver, but I had no idea he was going to be what he is now.”

Unexpected praise

In 12 full Cup seasons so far, Johnson has 66 victories. At age 38, he has six series championships, including a NASCAR-record five in a row (2006-10).

Still, some NASCAR fans have been unwilling to give Johnson his due.

“You can just say he can’t do it or he fell into something special,” Hendrick said, “but nobody has ever done what he’s done – won five in a row.”

Late last season, as Johnson was about to clinch his sixth title in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, he received several unexpected and important endorsements.

One was a rare compliment from a fellow driver, Denny Hamlin.

“It’s hard to get a driver to say something good about another driver,” Hendrick said. “They all believe if they all had the same equipment, they’d all be just as good. They have to, to do what they do.”

Then another came from one of those NASCAR immortals – Petty.

Since that week, and the sixth title Johnson claimed days later, Hendrick said he’s seen fans soften their views on Johnson.

“It’s hard to believe that a guy wins five championships in a row but it takes Richard Petty and Denny Hamlin to get up in the media center and say, ‘If not for him, a lot of other guys would have won championships,’ for Jimmie to gain respect,” he said.

A new generation

There is a segment of Cup series drivers who already views Johnson as one of the sport’s immortals, whether he collects a seventh championship in November or not.

For drivers such as Trevor Bayne, 23, Johnson is the driver they have watched win championships, not Petty or Earnhardt.

“Jimmie Johnson deserves to be considered a role model in NASCAR – on the track and off the track,” said Bayne, the 2011 Daytona 500 champion. “That guy pushes his body and pushes his limits, and the teamwork that him and Chad have together and the whole Hendrick group, that’s what you want.

“He wins at the end of the day and gets it done. That’s something we all look forward to doing, and he’s the guy that we’ve grown up watching do it.”

Utter: 704-358-5113; Twitter: @jim_utter

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