Jeff Gordon reflects on Johnson’s legacy as he runs for a seventh title – Nascar
A worldwide household name, Johnson has reached remarkable feats in the racing world. This weekend could represent a pinnacle in his racing career, as he runs for his seventh championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway, the opportunity to tie the great Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt for the most all-time Sprint Cup Series championships within reach.
But “Six-Time” wasn’t always that way: Former Hendrick Motorsports teammate and No. 48 car owner Jeff Gordon recalls when Johnson wasn’t a world champion, a race winner or even a Sprint Cup Series driver.
He was just Jimmie.
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“I was helping Ricky Hendrick — (team owner) Rick (Hendrick’s) son — who was getting in the XFINITY Series and wanted to run a few races and Darlington was one of the races on that schedule,” Gordon told NASCAR.com on Thursday. “… So, I went down to Darlington for a day of XFINITY testing and I remember going out there on top of a truck … and a car was out there — it was a red, white and blue car. Really had a nice line, carrying a lot of speed, right up next to the wall. You know, Darlington’s a very intimidating track and usually it takes not just a lot of skill but experience to understand the track.”
Gordon complimented the driver’s style, telling Hendrick “that’s pretty much how you need to do it.” Then he asked who the driver was.
“Jimmie Johnson,” Gordon recalls Hendrick answering.
With his seemingly experienced motor skills, Gordon wondered how many times Johnson had raced at “The Track Too Tough to Tame.” Hendrick surprised Gordon by telling him he thought it was his first time.
Gordon wanted to meet him.
“I remember going down to the garage and Jimmie was sitting in his car and I went over there to him and said, ‘Hey, what’s up, how are you?’ and introduced myself,” Gordon said. “I said, ‘So, have you ever been here to Darlington before?’ And he said, ‘Nope, today’s the first time I ever saw the place.’
“That to me in itself kind of floored me — it looked like he had been there for years; tremendous speed,” Gordon admitted. “So, I started watching him from that point forward.
“… To me, (he) was an overachiever for the team and the equipment.”
Sounds about right for someone who would later be christened “Six-Time.”
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The date is August 19, 2000.
The now-XFINITY Series heads to the rolling Irish Hills of Michigan International Speedway. Already a three-time now-Sprint Cup Series champion under the Hendrick Motorsports umbrella, Gordon is making his fourth XFINITY start in the No. 24 Gordon-Evernham Motorsports ride.
After the drivers meeting, Johnson approaches Gordon.
“(He said), ‘Hey, I’ve got some opportunities and some people talking to me and I’d love to pick your brain about it and get your opinion,'” Gordon recalled. “So, I was impressed that he was willing to come up and ask me and I felt honored that he thought to do that.”
The veteran driver was even more impressed during the race.
“I was running, I think third or fourth or something on a late restart,” Gordon said. “… I had a faster car than him all day long, but on that final restart he made a big, bold move and passed me, and I was like, ‘Whoa!’ I was like, ‘This guy’s got some real skills here.'”
GALLERY: How Johnson became ‘Six-Time’
During that time, Hendrick Motorsports was a three-car team, fielding the Nos. 5, 25 and 24 cars out of three-separate shops on the Concord, North Carolina, campus. But soon, more teams began to adopt the four-car team concept, where each of the cars worked together to share information and were seeing positive on-track results.
“When I left that Michigan race, I remember calling Rick (Hendrick) and I said ‘You know, I was just racing in the XFINITY race — Jimmie Johnson is extremely impressive … I really think that we could build this fourth team and hire him,'” Gordon said.
Hendrick had met Johnson through his son Ricky, as the pair were friends. But he worried about a lack of sponsorship for a no-name rookie out of El Cajon, California.
But Gordon was relentless.
“Maybe a week or two went by and we talked some more about it,” Gordon said. “and Rick said to me … ‘Listen, if you’re that adamant about it, why don’t you be a partner with me on it and we’ll go in together?’
“I said, ‘Done.'”
He made his first start behind the wheel of the No. 48 ride less than 13 months after that, signed with the team full-time in 2002 and earned his first Sprint Cup Series race 10 races into his rookie year.
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