It was mid-February in 2002 and a young Jimmie Johnson was planning to make his rookie season debut in the Winston Cup Series (now the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series). The California native had a modest two years in the Busch Series (now the NASCAR Nationwide Series) having accumulated just one win and finishing no better than eighth in the championship standings. That said, there was still a great deal of expectation as the 26-year-old was thought to be a favorite for Rookie-of-the-Year honors after being brought on fulltime by Hendrick Motorsports.
“I had a lot to do with picking Jimmie to be part of that team,” Hendrick Motorsports driver Jeff Gordon said at the beginning of that 2002 season. “Maybe I saw some of myself in Jimmie. I like his style. I like the way he handles himself in a race car and I like the talent he has.”
That’s high praise coming from a four-time champion and the reigning champion following the 2001 season. Little did we know in February, 2002, that Johnson making a splash with the pole position at his very first Daytona 500 would be the starting point of what is now a future Hall-of-Fame career just 12 seasons later.
Here we are in 2013 where Johnson is coming off Saturday evening’s Coke Zero 400 victory at Daytona and in his customary position atop the points standings as he eyes a sixth NASCAR Sprint Cup Series crown. Johnson’s win was his fourth of the season, 64th of his Sprint Cup Series career and marked the first time a driver has swept both races at Daytona in the same season since NASCAR Hall of Famer Bobby Allison did it in 1982.
Johnson’s success at restrictor-plate tracks this season is a scary sight for his competitors. With an average finish of 17th in 47 races, one of the few weaknesses in Johnson’s career has been plate racing. That is until this year.
Like his sponsor Lowe’s brand positioning, “Never Stop Improving,” Johnson’s team lives by the same rules. With the new Gen-6 car this season, Johnson has racked up two wins in Daytona and a top-five finish at Talladega in his three plate starts.
“Yeah, it’s hard to say I hate plate racing right now with these wins,” Johnson said. “I think the Gen-5 car and the style of drafting that took place there, I just didn’t match up well with it, just didn’t do a good job. This car, this style of drafting fits well with me and it’s made a huge difference.”
The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series is at the midway point and Johnson sits first in the points, 49 ahead of Clint Bowyer. It’s a similar position for Johnson to his 2006 season when he was 51 points ahead of Matt Kenseth midway through the season prior to winning his first of five consecutive championships.
An experienced champion like Johnson understands what his mid-season position means and what it does not. Knowing that ultimately it’s the final 10 races that are the most important, Johnson refuses to break his calm, cool and collected demeanor.
“The Chase is so different,” Johnson said. “We’ve entered it with a ton of momentum and we’ve entered it off. These 26 races are what they are and it’s time to move on and work on those next 10. When we get in the Chase, there are certain feelings that come around, but right now it’s really about managing your team, managing your car, developing the car and things like that.
“I feel good, but as we get later in the summer, a week or two out, if we’re winning races then, the right feeling will start to come along. It’s still a little early and we’re obviously trying to get every point we can to carry in with bonus points, but we’ve got a little time before we focus in on that feeling.”
Despite Johnson’s humble demeanor, the looks of another dominant season still have people talking in and out of the garage. A sixth championship for Johnson would extend the No. 48’s dynasty after a two-year title drought and put him just one shy of the record seven championships won by legends Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt. In addition, the 64 victories put him within shouting distance of the 100-win milestone so often talked about with his teammate Gordon (87 wins). Only Petty (200) and David Pearson (105) have achieved the mark.
“Yeah, yeah, I’d love to reach it,” Johnson said. “I just haven’t put any number out there in my head. That’s just not how I’ve been raised as a driver or a racer, regardless of with bikes or trucks and now where I am today. I certainly hope to get there, but I just usually don’t look that far ahead. It’s kind of on to the next week and I hope to win again and we’ll see where everything tallies up.”
Many people have questioned whether Johnson’s dominance is good for the sport. What can’t be questioned is that he will go down as one of the all-time greats and we’re fortunate to be able to watch it unfold. If the first 18 races are any indication, we’ll have a new nickname for Johnson in November – “Six Time.”