Way back in 2001, Rick Hendrick and Jeff Gordon took a bit of a flyer on a 25 year-old California Xfinity Series driver who had zero NASCAR wins. They announced they were putting him in a fourth Cup car the next year.
A few weeks later he notched his first – and only – win in NASCAR’s second series. I wouldn’t feel too bad for him though, as of race five of the 2016 Sprint Cup Series, he has 77 wins and six championships in that series.
Of course I’m talking about Jimmie Johnson, who was a relatively unknown when Hendrick and Gordon plucked him out of Stanley Herzog’s Chevrolet.
Johnson won the last time the NASCAR Cup Series was in action at California. The win was a big one as it moved him into sixth on the all-time wins list, passing Dale Earnhardt. As he sits right now, he is six wins behind Cale Yarborough and Bobby Allison and seven behind Darrell Waltrip. While, at 40, I don’t know if we will catch second place David Pearson (105), but I think he has a good shot at finishing his career ahead of Gordon, who retired after the 2015 season with 93 wins.
“I’ve been very, very fortunate to win 77 of these things, which blows my mind on its own,” Johnson said. “It’s easy to look at trends and say we win X a year, but at some point that stops.
“That stops for everybody. I don’t know when that point is for me. I certainly hope it’s not soon. I would love to get to Jeff (Gordon). But you never know.”
While he knows the winning will eventually stop, Johnson does not think it will be any time soon for him.
“I feel like physically and mentally I’m the best that I’ve ever been in my career,” he said. “I’m in a great space and really enjoying going to the race shop, going to the racetrack, working with my team.
“So I’m in the space I want to be in, which tells me it makes me want to stick around and do this for a lot of years.”
Not good news for the competition.
I’ve said this before, but I don’t think Jimmie Johnson is the best driver ever, but he’s in the conversation. In my book, it’s hard to top what Pearson did — winning championships while not running all the races (different era, I know). And it’s hard to top his 1973 season when he won 11 of the 18 races he entered.
While I don’t see Johnson as NASCAR’s best ever, I would argue that he has the best team ever. All but two of his wins have come with crew chief Chad Knaus. The only two that did not were with Darian Grubb in 2006 when Knaus was suspended for a cheated-up racecar.
Richard Petty won all seven of his championships with crew chief Dale Inman. So, while not unprecedented, it is uncommon these days for a crew chief/driver combo to last six years, much less six championships.
To put the Johnson/Knaus run in perspective, Kyle Busch has had three crew chiefs in nine seasons at Joe Gibbs Racing. This year, Greg Biffle is working with his seventh crew chief in 14 years. His Roush-Fenway teammate Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is on crew chief three in four full-time seasons.
So part of the success has to a lot to do with the continuity and stability in the relationship between Johnson and Knaus. They don’t always get along over the in-car radio, but they even when they don’t agree, they know what the other one is saying and what they want. And if you talk to any racecar driver, they will tell you how important that is.
The partnership has made Johnson only the second driver in NASCAR history to win at least two races in 15-straight seasons.
I still wonder what Hendrick and Gordon saw in Johnson when they signed the then-winless driver way back when, but you can’t argue with the results.
Andy Cagle writes a weekly column during the NASCAR season. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.