Crashing Debut Paves Way for Historic Success in Johnson's First Cup Race
By Aaron Burns
Jimmie Johnson didn’t know which emotion was most appropriate – excitement or nervousness.
The former off-road racer sat in his car as the minutes ticked away prior to his NASCAR Cup Series debut in Charlotte Motor Speedway’s 500-mile fall race in 2001. After a whirlwind week, Johnson gathered his thoughts in the cockpit of his blue-and-red, Lowe’s Home Improvement-sponsored No. 48 Chevrolet.
The 26-year-old rookie had two goals for the race: complete all the laps, and do not crash Jeff Gordon – his championship-leading teammate at Hendrick Motorsports. As for Johnson’s hopes of winning? Yeah, right. The El Cajon, California, native had one NASCAR Xfinity Series victory in two-plus seasons with Herzog Motorsports. Wins could come later. On Oct. 7, 2001, Johnson simply wanted to avoid embarrassment.
“I’ll never forget that first start,” Johnson recalled. “For one, that week was a tough week because I’d already lost one of my closest friends, Blaise Alexander. Jumping in (Xfinity Series) practice, that was tough to overcome. But we qualified well (15th) in the Cup car and we ran well.”
Johnson settled in and found his groove once the green flag dropped. Anguish and nervousness gave way to supreme focus. Still reeling from the pain of losing a friend, Johnson shifted his mind to managing his tires, car setup and Gordon’s progress. Maybe he’d have a pretty impressive debut, after all.
Only inexperience could get in Johnson’s way.
On lap 158 of the 334-lap race, Johnson drifted too high in Turns 3 and 4 and lost control of his car. As the No. 48 whipped tail-first into the wall, Johnson realized the potential for his day to go from decent to disaster.
“As I’m sliding into the wall, I see Jeff coming for my door, getting ready to run into the side of me,” Johnson said. “All I kept thinking was, ‘Please don’t let him hit me. I’ll have my first and last race all at once.’”
Johnson didn’t collect Gordon in his accident. He has, however, collected seven NASCAR Cup Series championships and 83 wins in the 19 years since he nearly ended Gordon’s successful bid for a fourth title.
Johnson’s near-melee marked the first of many strokes of good fortune for the No. 48 car at Charlotte Motor Speedway, a track where he’s won eight points-paying NASCAR Cup Series races. In 2005, Johnson became the first driver to score three consecutive victories in the Coca-Cola 600. The track Bruton Smith built became known as “Jimmie’s House” throughout the early 2000s, when Johnson and longtime crew chief Chad Knaus started a torrid run of five wins in three years.
Johnson enters the Bank of America ROVAL™ 400 having not won at Charlotte since October 2016, an eternity for arguably the greatest driver to turn a wheel at America’s Home for Racing.
Now teamed with second-year crew chief Cliff Daniels, Johnson desperately wants a win on Charlotte’s 2.28-mile ROVAL™. He came agonizingly close in his last Charlotte race with Knaus in 2018, when a last-turn, last-lap bid for glory ended with the No. 48 car spinning backward and out of contention.
Throw in the fact Johnson is retiring from full-time NASCAR competition at season’s end and there’s plenty of incentive to turn back the clock and provide fans with another breathtaking display of dominance at one of Johnson’s favorite venues.
“This track means so much to the racing community,” Johnson said of Charlotte Motor Speedway. “When you come (to Charlotte) and run well, there’s something about it with it being in the backyard of all the race teams. I take pride in running well here.”
Johnson wasn’t too far removed from sleeping on fellow driver Ron Hornaday Jr.’s couch when he made his first Cup Series start in 2001. He never envisioned the victories he’d enjoy at his adopted home track. Those close to him say Johnson’s high level of commitment and strong character are what set him up for historic success at Charlotte and elsewhere on the NASCAR schedule.
“I’ve been in a lot of meetings at Hendrick Motorsports, and Jimmie’s level of focus, note-taking and interest is really impressive,” said Ray Evernham, Gordon’s crew chief in the 1990s and a Hendrick consultant from 2014-’18. “Jimmie would bring his daughter to the office and she’d sit by on her iPad while Jimmie took part in our Tuesday competition meetings, because he never wanted to miss them.
“He was always engaged, taking notes and asking his teammates questions about their car, their setup, anything that might make him go a tick faster. Of course, he has a ton of talent, but one of the things that set him apart from others is his attention to detail.”
Of note, Johnson has never won a Charlotte race without Knaus on his pit box. While Knaus will go for a ROVAL™ win calling the shots for Johnson’s teammate William Byron, a friendship sparked only months after Johnson’s 2001 debut that led to historic careers for both Johnson and Knaus – who can’t wait to see what Johnson has in store for the ROVAL™.
“I love Jimmie to pieces,” Knaus said. “His friendship means the world to me. He’s been such a huge part of my life and I’ve been a big part of his, obviously. As many Victory Lane trips and championships as we’ve won together, the time we’ve spent together, away from the track, is probably even more special to me.
“Having Jimmie as a friend and a co-worker has meant a lot to me. He’s a very nice man. He leads by example. His legacy speaks for itself. He’s a heck of a race car driver but beyond that, he’s a great person and I think that’s not known enough in this industry.”
Nearly two decades removed from his Charlotte debut, Johnson’s longevity among NASCAR’s elite has sparked comparisons to other sporting legends.
“Jimmie is the Tom Brady of motorsports,” Evernham said. “They both came in at about the same time and they’ve been the best at what they do. Jimmie Johnson is 100 percent what a champion represents. You couldn’t ask for more.”
About the Writer: A 2010 graduate of Lenoir-Rhyne University, Aaron Burns is the director of social media for A.E. Engine and a motorsports public relations and journalism practitioner, most recently with Charlotte Motor Speedway, NASCAR Pole Position and SPEED SPORT Magazine.