Hendrick team not resting on laurels

Posted: Thursday, December 20, 2001

CONCORD, N.C. -- Tired of the frozen smile that had been plastered to his face over the course of a two-day photo shoot, Jimmie Johnson was in need of some real comic relief.

He got it when his boss walked in and headed straight to the makeup artist.

What's so funny about that? There's nothing like watching four-time Winston Cup champion Jeff Gordon stop for a little powder and blush.

''Looking good, boss,'' Johnson yelled across the room.

''Not as good as you do,'' Gordon replied, taking care not to disrupt the primping process.

The 2002 season is two months away, but Gordon has Johnson hard at work preparing for it.

Aside from the countless photo shoots, which will be used for everything from press kits to print ads, Johnson is hanging out at the sprawling new Hendrick Motorsports complex that houses his and Gordon's race teams; and getting to know new crew chief Chad Knaus.

The work schedule left Johnson time for two brief vacations, one to Mexico and one to Jamaica. Then it was back to North Carolina to prepare for his first Winston Cup season.

It might seem like not much of an offseason. His time in his Busch car ended in November, and he heads to Florida at the beginning of February to prepare for the season-opening Daytona 500.

But Johnson doesn't care. He knows that when you sign on to drive for Gordon and Rick Hendrick, you better be ready for the challenges.

''I don't mind not having much time off,'' Johnson said. ''This might not be the popular opinion of any other drivers or crews, but I'm ready for the season to start.

''From the time I signed on with Hendrick to when it was announced, it seems too long ago. This has always been my dream, and I'm real anxious for it to get here.''

So the 28-year-old Johnson finds himself in an envious position, picking Gordon's brain on the ins and outs of Winston Cup racing and using the vast resources and state-of-the art equipment provided by Hendrick.

In between, Johnson is adjusting to the tedious side of the business -- photo shoots and the sponsor commitments.

That's what had him at the shop on a recent, rainy Friday, standing alone next to his No. 48 Chevrolet for hours in the same pose with the same smile. Then he had to do it again -- in concert with Gordon and Hendrick.

When that was over, it was time for Johnson and Gordon to stand back-to-back displaying products their sponsor asked them to hawk.

Johnson did it all with the patience and charm Gordon is known for, characteristics that probably brought the two of them together just over a year ago.

In the Busch series at the time and facing possible sponsor problems, Johnson found himself seated next to Gordon at a drivers' meeting and asked for advice.

Unknown to Johnson, Gordon and Hendrick had talked just days earlier about finding a young driver for a fourth Hendrick team. It didn't take long for Johnson to become the choice.

''Jimmie is a heck of a talent,'' Gordon said. ''You put the right equipment under him, and he's going to get it done.''

Now Gordon is getting Johnson ready for the actual moment, which begins in earnest next month with several test dates and scheduled sponsor obligations that have more than 20 days of January locked up.

Gordon also is entrusting Johnson to Knaus, a former member of the Rainbow Warriors crew that helped Gordon to three of his titles.

Knaus is back at Hendrick after spreading out and learning to be a crew chief. He held that position at Melling Racing for driver Stacy Compton. But with Melling facing sponsor problems that left the team's future in doubt, Knaus began to look for work and found the door open for a return to Hendrick.

Now, he's teamed with one of the young talents in the sport, and the two have hit it off immediately.

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