Friends, team-mates, rivals...
And add employer and employee to that list. Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson have a unique relationship in NASCAR, as well as being two drivers who have redefined the sport
By Gordon Kirby
Between them they have nine championships and 140 wins in NASCAR’s premier division. They are by far and away US stock car racing’s most successful active drivers, and beyond that they have already secured their places in NASCAR lore. They also happen to be team-mates and good friends. But what Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson are not, never have been and never could be are the stereotypical ‘good ol’ boys’ who ruled NASCAR’s past. These guys have spearheaded a new generation that has broken the old image of what a stock car ace is supposed to be. They’re urbane, worldly-wise fellows and great ambassadors for their particular form of motor racing.
When NASCAR rolled into New Hampshire for the 28th round of this year’s mammoth 36-race Sprint Cup series in September, Motor Sport caught up with Gordon and Johnson to gain an insight into the world of the modern NASCAR star.
Rise of the California Kid
When he joined Rick Hendrick’s emerging NASCAR team 19 years ago Jeff Gordon was a fresh-faced kid with a wispy, make-believe moustache. Just 21, Gordon had won USAC’s midget championship in 1990 and the Silver Crown championship the following year. He was a king in midget and sprint cars, but was innocent and childlike compared to NASCAR’s biggest star Dale Earnhardt – a tough, race-wizened legend and a master of ‘using the fender’.
Yet Gordon soon proved he could not only race with the likes of Earnhardt but beat them. He won his first top-level NASCAR race in 1994 and took his first championship a year later, adding second and third titles in 1997-98 and a fourth in 2001. Hendrick, a car dealer based in Charlotte, North Carolina, had started his NASCAR team in 1984 with Geoff Bodine driving. By ’88 he’d expanded to run three cars and Gordon joined the team at the end of ’92. Veteran Terry Labonte was hired by Hendrick two years later and was Gordon’s team-mate for 11 years. Labonte won the championship in ’96, while a variety of drivers raced Hendrick’s third car into the 21st century.
California's next big thing
Jimmie Johnson joined Hendrick Motorsports at the end of 2001 and the following year the team started running four cars. A California dirt track and off-road racer, Johnson began racing in NASCAR’s second-division Nationwide Series in 1999. Driving for a small team named Herzog Motorsports he attracted little attention by winning just one race over the next three seasons.
Following title win number four Gordon had been offered a stake in Hendrick’s team, and after watching Johnson in a test at Darlington he convinced his new business partner to hire him. “The first time I saw Jimmie on the track was at a Nationwide test,” he recalls. “I was there helping Rick’s son Ricky. He’d never been to Darlington before so I was there to give him my assistance and opinion.
“We were on top of the truck watching some cars go round and this one particular car ran the line you needed to in order to go fast, carrying the right amount of speed right up next to the wall and off the corner. I asked Ricky who was driving and he said it was Jimmie Johnson. He said it was Jimmie’s first time there and I said, ‘No way!’
“Later I introduced myself to Jimmie. I asked him how many times he’d been to Darlington and he said today was the first time. That impressed me because Darlington is a tough track and it’s not always a natural thing that comes to you the first time you run there. To me that was the first sign that he had real talent, and I kept my eye on him from then on.
“He continued to impress me with what I didn’t think was the best equipment out there. I thought, if you pick a guy like that who’s working hard and getting that much out of the car, and you put him in a team like Hendrick Motorsports, I think he can do great things. And obviously that proved to be true.”
The enemy within?
Having joined Hendrick, Johnson started winning races straight away. He finished as championship runner-up in 2003 and ’04 before embarking on an incredible record-breaking run of five straight titles between 2006-10. “Some people said to me, ‘Why did you do that? That wasn’t very smart,’” says Gordon. “But when you see a talent like that and there’s an opportunity [to sign him], how can you pass it up?
“I’m in a unique position because I’m an equity owner. I’m not only thinking about what we can do with the No 24 car to win more races and titles, I’m thinking about the overall organisation too.”
Gordon couldn’t be happier with the positive effect Johnson has had on the team. Jeff turned 40 last year, and as he heads into his 20th season with Hendrick he sees his friend and team-mate as a superb yardstick. “It’s turned out to be amazing. I think having Jimmie here has helped raise the level of competition at Hendrick. Might I have won more championships without Jimmie being here? Maybe, but I’m really proud of what he’s accomplished with the team.
“Right now, the No 48 crew (Johnson’s car) are the team to beat in NASCAR, and if we could do that it would be incredible, especially at this point in my career. It would be the ultimate accomplishment.”
Johnson speaks warmly of his complicated relationship with Gordon. “It’s been an interesting 10 years,” he says. “We have a great deal of respect for one another, on and off the track, but there have been flare-ups from time to time. It’s hard to have your friends be your toughest competitors, but that respect is the bond which has kept us working together. I’m sure that some day when the pressure of competition is gone the friendship will be more of a priority. Right now, things are great. We’re friendly, but we’re still racing.”
Last September on the super-fast, high-banked 1.5-mile Atlanta Motor Speedway Gordon scored the 85th win of his career after a tremendous door-to-door battle with Johnson. They raced together, tails sliding up to the wall in a spectacular display of NASCAR at its best. “When the grip goes away at Atlanta you’re on ice,” says Gordon. “It really is slick. Typically you wouldn’t have to push it quite that much, but when you’re in a battle for the win you’re going to get everything you can out of it and go over the limit several times on a lap.
“To be able to do that was a lot of fun. It was nerve-racking from where I was sitting because there was so little grip. Every lap I was trying to go as fast as I could, knowing that one mistake could cost me the race.”
Johnson has equally warm memories of the duel. “Atlanta is a great track to really see how hard the drivers work. The grip level is pretty low, so when the tyre breaks traction it’s not as abrupt as on a really grippy track. The asphalt at Atlanta is so old that the tyres aren’t loaded as heavily and you can slide the car around and put on a great show. It was fun racing with Jeff in that moment. We didn’t care about points, we didn’t care about anything. It was all about how was I going to get by him? I wanted to use the throttle but I just didn’t have the rear grip to do it. I was dead sideways a few times.”
Ken Howes, Hendrick’s vice-president of competition, came to America from South Africa more than 25 years ago and has run the team’s race operations for two decades. He attends every NASCAR race and bases himself at Gordon’s No 24 transporter. “You hope people realised what they were watching [at Atlanta],” he says. “It was two of the greatest stock car drivers giving it everything they had on a difficult track. When we say these cars don’t have a lot of grip, you could see it there.”
Howes believes Gordon and Johnson do a great job of controlling and casting aside any on-track anger they may have towards each other. “We do our best to manage it. At Texas two years ago Jeff and Jimmie had a little argument. But those days are rare and it doesn’t last for long. They just see it as another car on the track that’s interfering with their progress.”
No sign of slowing down
Having failed to win a race for two years Gordon bounced back this season with three victories at the time of writing, including his 85th at Atlanta, which put him third on NASCAR’s all-time winners list behind Richard Petty (200 wins) and David Pearson (105). At 40, Gordon shows no signs of even thinking about quitting, while Johnson, 36, is at the peak of his career with 55 wins to his credit.
“Jeff has got a spring in his step and I think he senses that the team is capable of winning the championship,” says Howes. “But Jimmie is a formidable champion. He’s not going to give up without a big fight. Jimmie impresses me more and more each year as a champion. He definitely carries it well, he’s the consummate professional.”
Clearly Johnson is in the prime of his life. “It’s hard to say I’m not at the peak of my career with what’s gone on,” he admits. “The desire in me to compete is still very high. I don’t even know where retirement is. I assume that at some point I’ll just have had enough and the fire will go out. But I don’t see that happening any time soon.
“I don’t spend a lot of time looking at what has gone on. I try to reflect a little bit, but in motor sport it changes weekly, daily for that matter, and you’ve got to live in the now. That has helped me not to spend too much time looking at what we’ve done and thinking how much cooler it could be to do more. You’ve got to go out and earn it each and every week.”
Howes believes some people underestimate the depth of NASCAR’s field and the complexities of running long races with multiple pitstops and full-course yellow flag caution periods. “The drivers aren’t given credit for how talented they are,” he says. “When you see people of the calibre of Juan Pablo Montoya and others who have come and tried it, they have plenty of talent and they get the speed out of the car. They run competitive times, but when you get to the race and being able to run 400 and 500 miles and not make a mistake on pitroad or anywhere else, it’s more difficult than people imagine.”
Gordon experienced some back problems two years ago but has learned to live with it through improved fitness training after medical tests revealed there was nothing fundamentally wrong. “When you’ve had the kind of pain I’ve had in the car you want to find out what’s wrong,” he says. “So I had a bunch of MRI scans and the doctors came back and said they couldn’t really say what was wrong. So I started to work out more to strengthen that area.
“It’s good to know that there’s nothing major wrong. It’s probably just from years of racing. So I put my head down and worked away at it and I try to not focus on it. Every time I get out of the car now I’m stiff and it hurts. But it’s not bothering me when I’m in the car.
“Of course, if the guys keep giving me the kind of race car they’ve given me this year, it makes me not focus on my back because I’m not working the wheel as much!”
Life beyond the Sprint Cup
At Indianapolis in 2003 Gordon traded his NASCAR Chevrolet for a few laps in Montoya’s Formula 1 Williams-BMW. “It was the most incredible experience I’ve ever had in my life,” Jeff declares. “It was a very short experience, but the physical side of those cars is much more demanding. I compare it to a jet pilot in the military. You have to be in incredible physical shape because the car has so much grip that it’s capable of doing more than the body is capable of.
“An F1 car is the ultimate – it stopped better than I could have imagined, turned better, had more grip and accelerated better. So in a lot of ways it was one of the easier cars I’ve driven. But to compete on that level, to push yourself and your car to find that last second or two, it would be very challenging. Plus you’d have to learn all the different tracks. But it was an awesome experience, one I’ll never forget.
“But I still say that of all the cars I’ve driven over the years a non-wing sprint car would probably be number one. A stock car would be number two and I’d put the F1 car from a difficulty standpoint further down the list. But on a fun level the F1 car is top of the list by a mile. When you drive a stock car and then you get in an F1 car, that’s a dream.”
Gordon believes NASCAR’s strict regulations allow the ruling body to achieve its twin goals of close competition and cars that are visibly difficult to drive. “I believe every race car when you push it to its limit is always going to have areas of uncertainty or instability,” he says. “But I think with our cars there’s a lot more of that! It’s just something you have to adapt to. But that doesn’t stop me from asking my crew chief and our engineers to try to make it better, and certainly each year we do improve the car.
“But because of the rules it makes it very challenging. If we had wide-open rules it would be fun and fairly easy to fix some of our problems. But that’s not the way NASCAR wants it. I’ve driven a lot of different race cars and I think a stock car at a place like Bristol is one of the most difficult.”
Another demanding element of NASCAR is its 36-race season, which starts at Daytona in February and ends at the Homestead-Miami Speedway in November. With two additional non-championship ‘money’ races at Daytona and Charlotte, it’s the longest season not only in motor racing but in sport as a whole.
“The schedule is very demanding,” says Johnson. “It’s the longest season of any sport and the tracks are all so different. We run from a half-mile to a 2.6-mile track, from high banking to flat tracks and everything in between. So it’s highly challenging and, needless to say, it’s a lifestyle. With a short six-week off-season we don’t have any vacation time. It’s full time all the time.”
Johnson races regularly in the Daytona 24 Hours with Bob Stallings’ Gainsco team, co-driving with Alex Gurney and Jon Fogarty. “I’ve always been a motor sport fan,” he says. “It doesn’t matter whether it’s two wheels, four wheels, dirt or asphalt. I just love it. It’s what I grew up doing and I enjoy driving and getting experience in different vehicles. The more I can do the better, but it’s difficult to find the time.”
Gordon’s love of motor sport also shines through, “whether it’s rallying, MotoGP or F1. There are many forms of racing and they’re all exciting. I always think, ‘What type of race car haven’t I driven that I’d like to drive?’ That’s typical of a racing driver. You sit and watch and say, ‘I could do that.’”
But as a partner in Hendrick, Gordon adds a cautionary note: “I watch F1 and I’m amazed by the professionalism and the speed of the cars and what it takes as a driver. But the thing that worries me is the cost. The costs are out of control in all forms of motor sport.”