Johnson learning the ropes from car owner Gordon

Posted: Thursday, October 11, 2001

Two weeks before his scheduled Winston Cup debut, Jimmie Johnson was called in for a meeting with the boss. For the next few hours, car owner Jeff Gordon explained the rigors of racing to Johnson, his hand-picked protege.

There was one thing Gordon neglected to mention.

''I think what I forgot to talk to him about was just to keep that between the two of us,'' the three-time Winston Cup champion said. ''I should have had that on my list.''

Johnson's admission of the private meeting is just one of the many bumps the two are bound to have as Gordon crosses over to car owner and Johnson makes the move up to NASCAR's top series.

Although the two share good looks, charm and even humor, their careers couldn't be further apart.

At 30, Gordon has 58 career victories and is on the verge of winning his fourth Winston Cup title. He's got a lifetime contract at Hendrick Motorsports that makes him a partial owner in all its ventures, and is a savvy businessman.

Johnson, meanwhile, is 26 and by some standards getting a late start at the big time. He grew up racing motorcycles in Southern California and tried off-road racing before moving into stock cars in the American Speed Association.

He eventually made it to NASCAR's Busch series last season, and picked up his first career win three months ago. Although he's dreamed of Winston Cup racing, he's the first to admit he doesn't really have a clue what it's all about.

So how did they get together?

Perfect timing.

It was just over a year ago when Johnson, stuck in the Busch series and facing possible sponsor problems, had the good fortune to sit next to Gordon at a drivers' meeting. Needing advice on what his next career step should be, he gathered up the nerve to ask Gordon if they could talk.

''I was sort of surprised he even knew who I was, but he couldn't have been nicer and told me to come over to the truck and we'd talk,'' Johnson said. ''I went in looking for advice and I walked out with the opportunity of a lifetime.''

Unknown to Johnson, Gordon and team owner Rick Hendrick had talked just days earlier about finding a young driver for a fourth Hendrick team.

''He said 'This is just in the early stages, but we're looking for someone and I don't see why it couldn't be you,''' Johnson recalled. ''I couldn't believe it, it was like a dream and I left there on cloud nine.''

Not long after that, Johnson had a contract with Hendrick Motorsports and was ready to start the process of becoming a Winston Cup driver.

He's spent this season finishing out his Busch series contract and quietly watching Gordon to learn as much as he can. Once a sponsor was lined up, they decided to enter him in three Cup races this year to get some experience before a full schedule in 2002.

Johnson made his Winston Cup debut Sunday at Lowe's Motor Speedway, two weeks after Gordon's crash course preparing him for what to expect.

''To me, when you get to Winston Cup, it's so much bigger than life itself,'' Gordon said. ''I came into it totally blind. I didn't have a clue how my life was going to change. ... If I had somebody to prepare me, I think it would have gotten me a few steps ahead at the beginning.

''So I thought it was important to talk to him about those things because I think what will bring Jimmie along even faster is to keep him well focused.''

So Gordon has been mentoring Johnson about the demands he'll have on him on and off the track. He's talked to him about dealing with the media, how to handle overzealous fans, when to spend time away from the track and the importance of planning a schedule and sticking to it.

It all went exceptionally smooth last week, although it had the potential for disaster.

Johnson qualified 15th, five spots better than Gordon, who just laughed and shrugged at being shown up. He then counseled Johnson on the track and its grooves, cautioning him to stay out of trouble over the 500-mile race.

He didn't, though, and almost took Gordon with him when he spun out midway through the race. Gordon narrowly made it by, finishing 16th and retaining his lead in the points race.

Johnson finished 39th but didn't care. During the race, when he had moved up to fifth place, he radioed Gordon and the crew.

''Man, I'm living a dream out here,'' Johnson said.

He'll get two more starts this season, and probably much more advice from Gordon. Although Gordon swears he isn't planning on being a full-time car owner anytime soon, his affection and admiration for Johnson have him behaving differently.

''Jimmie is a heck of a talent, you put the right equipment under him and he's going to get it done,'' Gordon said. ''He's going to be good enough pretty soon that I'll have to be careful and concentrate on just driving my own car.''

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