By Michael Knight - The Arizona Republic
Hero. Mentor. Teacher. Student. Friend. Teammate. Competitor. Rival.
The relationship between Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson seemingly has taken more turns over the past 13 years than they've made on NASCAR racetracks.
"It's an awkward, interesting dynamic," admits Johnson, who went from idolizing the four-time Sprint Cup champion to winning five titles of his own.
He's leading for a sixth with next Sunday's AdvoCare 500 at Phoenix International Raceway being the semifinal in NASCAR's Chase for the Sprint Cup championship. Gordon is sixth in points.
In separate interviews with azcentral sports, both drivers and their team owner, Rick Hendrick, contemplated the relationship's evolution. And they took on the uneasy question: Would Johnson have achieved as much if not for Gordon, who brought him into the powerhouse Hendrick organization and put him on the road to on-and-off track success?
In the beginning ...
It was August 2000 at the NASCAR Nationwide Series' prerace drivers meeting at Michigan International Speedway where Johnson asked Gordon for career advice. Although Gordon, 41, is only four years older, Johnson says Jeff was his "hero" as a young motorcycle and off-road truck racer: "The only die-cast car I bought as a kid and was sitting on the headboard in my room" was Gordon's iconic No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet.
Johnson hadn't won a Nationwide race when they talked, but Gordon says he "respected his talent." Hendrick's son, Ricky, also a Nationwide driver, was Johnson's friend.
"Jimmie's going to be a superstar. He's going to be one of the greatest," Rick Hendrick says his son told him. Ricky Hendrick was one of 10 people killed in a 2004 airplane crash near Martinsville (Va.) Speedway.
Rick Hendrick and Gordon had been talking about starting another team.
"I went to Rick and said, 'What do you think of this Jimmie Johnson guy?' " recalls Gordon. "Rick said, 'Are you willing to put your money where your mouth is?' 'Yes, I am.' "
Says Gordon now: "Jimmie was going to be in the Cup series one way or another."
Gordon became a partner in the new team -- NASCAR officially lists him as owner of the No. 48. To get Lowe's to sponsor a Cup rookie, Gordon agreed to make appearances for the home-improvement company.
Johnson became a full-time teammate in 2002, the year after Gordon earned his fourth championship. In cars Gordon had raced first, and paired with workaholic crew chief Chad Knaus, Johnson got three victories and was fifth in points.
"The early years, Jeff was more impactful -- I'd say up to my first championship (2006), in working with me and helping me understand racing and my car and how to handle things and how to act and how to set up a business," Johnson says.
They were buddies who hung out together, single guys from Gordon's 2003 divorce to Johnson's 2004 marriage. Gordon was in the wedding party.
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