News & Media

Retro Racing: Johnson's first win start of something big

April 19, 2012, Mark Aumann,

Driver has rewarded Hendrick's faith in him with five championships and 55 wins

Winning is usually a good thing, something to which Rick Hendrick can attest. Victories not only help boost morale and generate positive publicity but also directly and indirectly provide the financial support to hire and keep top drivers and crews happy.

There are few teams in the Sprint Cup garage that win with the frequency of Hendrick Motorsports. The team's next Cup victory will give Hendrick 200 victories, second only to Petty Enterprises.

"Jeff [Gordon] and I thought [Jimmie Johnson] was such a good talent. He didn't have a sponsor, didn't know what the team was going to look like. We just knew he was a young boy with a lot of talent."


And yet, the organization's three longest winless streaks since 2001 have followed victories at Kansas Speedway. That includes the current 13-race winless drought since Jimmie Johnson's victory there last fall.

It took Hendrick Motorsports 15 tries to find Victory Lane after Jeff Gordon won at Kansas in 2002. The organization's longest string of races without a victory during the four-car era -- 17 winless races in a row -- was kicked off by Gordon's win in the inaugural Kansas event in 2001.

It wasn't until the following April, in the 2002 NAPA Auto Parts 500 at California Speedway, that a Hendrick car returned to the winner's circle. Instead of a veteran driver like Gordon or Terry Labonte, it was Johnson, then a rookie, who snapped the slump at his "home" track.

It was a win that resonates through the garage to this day. Crew chief Chad Knaus earned his first win by making the fuel-mileage call to keep Johnson in front of Kurt Busch by six lengths at the finish. Since then, Johnson and Busch have had a spirited -- and sometimes tumultuous -- rivalry.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., now in Hendrick's fold, was involved in a scary accident with Kevin Harvick, slamming into the wall driver's door first. At the time, doctors thought he had only bruised his ankle, but Junior admitted months later that he had suffered a concussion.

It's hard to imagine back to when Johnson was a virtual unknown. He had won poles at Daytona and Talladega earlier that year, but that was brushed aside as more a testament to Hendrick's engine shop. Win a race? That seemed a longshot, by any stretch of the imagination.

However, Hendrick and Gordon saw the potential in Johnson, the former off-road bike rider who had one win in two full seasons in what's now known as the Nationwide Series. And Johnson paid their trust back with interest, in only his 13th Cup start.

"Jeff and I thought he was such a good talent," Hendrick said after the race. "He didn't have a sponsor, didn't know what the team was going to look like. We just knew he was a young boy with a lot of talent."

The same could be said for Knaus, who brought Johnson in for a fuel-only stop at the end of the race, giving Johnson enough of an advantage to hang on during the final 14 laps.

"It paid off," Knaus said in his post-race interview. "I thought I was going to get sick to my stomach and throw up after I made the call, but it worked out well."

Johnson never doubted that the strategy would work.

"I smiled because I knew what it was going to do for us," Johnson said. "It was going to put us out in front. I was just hoping that Kurt wasn't going to do the same thing."

Busch led 102 of the 250 laps -- at one point holding a 10-second advantage over the field. But even with new tires, the gap between his car and Johnson's was too large to overcome in such a short amount of time.

Even after he climbed from his No. 97 Ford, Busch still was shaking his head at the winner's strategy.

"I never thought I would get beat on fuel only," Busch said. "It's not bittersweet, but it is hard to swallow."

The only mistake Johnson made all day came after the checkered flag. In his exuberance, he blew up the motor in his No. 48 Chevrolet doing victory burnouts for the crowd -- and sheepishly apologized to engine builder Randy Dorton.

The excitement still was evident in Johnson's voice when tried to explain what a victory at the Cup level meant to him.

"You always think you have the ability to come out here and be competitive, but you just don't know until the right situation presents itself," Johnson said. "I am just blown away. Coming into this knowing I was driving for Rick and that the team would be set up in the same shop with the No. 24, everybody knew the potential was there. But I was just as curious as everybody else to see how it would work out."

The five championship rings and 55 wins -- all with Hendrick -- show that things have worked out pretty well for Johnson. Now there's just the matter of relocating Victory Lane, and perhaps putting a bookend victory at Kansas in the books this weekend.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.