The sponsor looked at the driver, a soft-spoken, doe-eyed kid, and asked one question, simple but also loaded: “Can you win?”
The driver, if he was intimidated, didn’t show it. He wasn’t a big name, not even in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, where he’d raced for the last two seasons with one win and a top-10 points finish but nothing earth-shattering. He’d never been handed anything, never expected to have anything handed to him.
But here was an opportunity, one that could change his career if he answered the question right.
So the driver looked at the sponsor, right in the eye. “Yes.”
There wasn’t really much in Jimmie Johnson’s pedigree to suggest he’d turn into the kind of driver Hendrick Motorsports expected. He turned heads when Jeff Gordon handpicked him in 2001 for the new No. 48 team that he would co-own with team owner Rick Hendrick for a full slate of races beginning the following year, but because the move was unexpected. Johnson had only climbed into a stock car a few years early; before that, his experience was in off-road racing, far from a traditional path to NASCAR.
So while Johnson boldly told executives from a massive corporation that he could win, critics of Gordon’s choice weren’t convinced he would win at all.
It took Johnson 13 races to prove them wrong.
Johnson ran just three races in 2001, never finishing better than 25th. But if the critics felt vindicated, Johnson kicked off his full-time rookie season by sitting on the pole for the 2002 Daytona 500. He finished 15th. He followed that up with a 28th at Rockingham Speedway, but then Johnson began to show the driver he’d be: in the next seven races, he finished outside the top 10 just once, due to a mechanical failure at Martinsville Speedway. Nine weeks into the season, Johnson was sixth in points.
And in week 10, the first win came. The second and third also came in 2002, both at Dover Motor Speedway, where Johnson would win a total of 11 times, more than any other driver in Cup history.
Johnson also set a rookie record that no other driver has been able to equal: he led the Cup points as a rookie.
All that and Johnson didn’t win Rookie of the Year (that went to Ryan Newman). But he set the bar high for himself. Still, that Johnson might someday catch the one record that even Gordon would never approach, the one that sets drivers alone among others, seemed … unlikely.
Johnson would say later that he raced scared his rookie season: scared that he couldn’t be what his team and sponsors wanted him to be, that he’d lose his ride if he didn’t win.
Fast forward a couple of decades, and the soft-spoken, doe-eyed kid is a kid no longer, but a seven-time Cup champion. He’s tied for sixth on the all-time wins list with his childhood hero, Cale Yarborough. Friday night (Jan. 19), he’ll become a NASCAR Hall of Famer alongside his longtime crew chief Chad Knaus, who was with Johnson for most to his victories.
Johnson terrorized the Cup Series in the 2000s, winning five titles in a row from 2006-2010, joining Yarborough as the only two drivers to win more than two championships in a row. The critics who had once said he wouldn’t win enough changed their tune — now he won too much.
Johnson wasn’t embraced by race fans the way he probably should have been. He beat their favorite drivers too often, and worse, this kid from California, of all places, was approaching ground on which only Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt stood alone.
Johnson wasn’t Petty, though he had a similar fan-friendly manner about him. He wasn’t Earnhardt, either, though his background was a blue-collar one.
He hadn’t won under the same points system (though in reality Petty and Earnhardt won under different systems too), no matter that he didn’t have much of a chance to do that because the system changed just as Johnson was coming into his own. He won under the system he was given and did it better than anyone, but somehow became the poster child for a hated championship system rather than respected for winning under a system he didn’t create.
It didn’t’ help that Johnson was over-handled during the years when he was a rising star in NASCAR. His personality was bleached to vanilla white, far from the fun-loving young driver that Johnson actually was. By the time Johnson was allowed to let his personality show, he was a veteran in the sport and it was hard to change the opinions that had already been formed.
Nothing came as easily as it looked for Johnson. He and his team found ways to turn around adversity on track. More than once, Johnson drove through personal loss. His first race came days after the on-track death of his best friend Blaise Alexander. He won a week after a plane crash claimed he lives of 10 people, most of them Hendrick employees and Johnson’s friends. You never counted Johnson down and out. He’d find a way to come back swinging.
By the numbers, Johnson stacks up against the best the sport has produced. With seven Cup championships, 83 wins with a 12.04% winning percentage (averaging a win every eight-and-a-half starts), Johnson is also the all-time Cup win leader at Dover, Charlotte Motor Speedway, Texas Motor Speedway, Las Vegas Motor Speedway and Auto Club Speedway.
Johnson defined an era in NASCAR. Friday night, his name will go beside the drivers he’s matched and some he’s surpassed in the record books.
Could he win? The doe-eyed kid from California made good on his promise, and then some.
About the author
Amy is an 20-year veteran NASCAR writer and a six-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found working on her bi-weekly columns Holding A Pretty Wheel (Tuesdays) and Only Yesterday (Wednesdays). A New Hampshire native whose heart is in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.
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