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Monday, November 17, 2008
Everyone But Jimmie Johnson


Johnson was a nobody in 2000, when Jeff Gordon came calling.

I thought Jeff Gordon was nuts.

It was the late summer of 2000 at the Dover Downs International Speedway and the then-three time Cup champ ended a run-of-the-mill Friday morning interview by suggesting we go talk to driver Jimmie Johnson in the Busch (now Nationwide) Series garage.

"I just found out that his contract is up soon and he is shopping around for a ride," Gordon said. "When I heard that I ran and grabbed him and said, 'Don't sign anything with anyone until you talk to me first!' He's going to be the next big thing."

I have to be honest, I thought he was joking. I knew that Gordon was working toward starting his own Cup team within a couple of seasons and I knew that Rick Hendrick was on board with that plan. But Jimmie Johnson? The guy with the same name as the head coach of the Cowboys?

The summer of 2000 was the unofficial kickoff of the out-of-control "Young Gun" craze, where car owners began to shed experienced veterans and replace them with unknown kids in the search for the next Jeff Gordon.

Bill Elliott was working with protégé' Casey Atwood. Robert Yates Racing jettisoned Ernie Irvan to make room for USAC ace Kenny Irwin Jr. while Roger Penske showed Jeremy Mayfield the door to create space for another Midwestern sprinter named Ryan Newman. Along that same time, Tony Stewart had moved over from Indy Cars while Dale Earnhardt Junior and Matt Kenseth shifted their rivalry from Busch to Cup and Kurt Busch was promoted to a Cup ride at Roush Racing from the Truck Series.

All of those guys brought résumés we'd already known about and careers we had all tracked on ESPN2's Thursday Night Thunder and in the National Speed Sport News. They all seemed like sure things, destined for solid NASCAR Cup careers.

Everyone but Jimmie Johnson.

I had covered Johnson briefly in the CORR off-road truck series (the one you see popping up randomly on NBC Sports every weekend) during the mid-1990's and was also on hand to see him run a couple of ASA stock car events. I knew that Chevrolet had seen some potential in the kid and had helped him make the transition from dirt trucks to short tracks to stock cars.

But the next big thing? Seriously?

Fans knew next to nothing about him. He seemed like a nice guy and drove a more than slightly ugly car in the Busch Series for a group of fellow former off-roaders, the Herzog family. But what most fans knew him for was damn near going through the turn one fence at Watkins Glen on June 25, 2000. It was a crash so violent that most on the scene assumed he was dead. Then he climbed from the car, stood on the roof, and did his best Rocky Balboa top-of-the-stairs pose.

One month later, Johnson finished sixth at Michigan, a spot he earned with a wicked slide job across one of the track's humongous sweeping turns. The car with the best view of that balls-out move was one riding in seventh, a Chevy driven by Jeff Gordon.

Gordon was a huge source of advice in Johnson's rookie season.

Gordon had always laughed when his boss Rick Hendrick told the story of the day he "discovered" the future four-time Cup champ. Hendrick was leaving the infield of the Atlanta Motor Speedway during a Busch Series race when a white Ford caught his eye as it barreled sideways into the turn like it was on a dirt track. "Look at this maniac," Hendrick recalls thinking. "I'm going to sit here and watch him wreck." But he didn't wreck, lap after lap. The team owner was sold. He'd seen his future and he knew it. "Anybody with that kind of car control is a great racecar driver. It takes a lot for a guy to stand out, for someone like me, who has watched thousands of drivers run a million laps, to say, 'Holy cow, that's something special.' Jeff was that guy and I immediately started working to sign him."

That day at Michigan in August 2000, Gordon had his very own Hendrick crystal ball slide job premonition and immediately started making phone calls to find out more about Johnson. That's when he found out that Johnson was looking for a Cup ride after 2001. So he told Johnson not to sign with anyone but him, and then told me to go talk to "the next big thing."

So I did and as always, he was very cordial, albeit a little shell-shocked by the sudden interest from the biggest star in the sport. One year later, he was in the newly-created 48 Chevy for a handful of races at the end of the season. I went to my editor at ESPN The Magazine and told him they we needed to tab Johnson as our NEXT racer for 2002.

"Are you sure? We've never heard of him."

"Me, either, but I am assured he is going to be the next big thing."

"Who told you that?"

"Jeff Gordon."

"We'll set up a photo shoot for next week."