Johnson could have teamed with Junior
If the late Dale Earnhardt had elected to continue running his Busch Series program over adding a third car in Cup, history -- and Jimmie Johnson's career -- could be far different, writes David Newton.
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Ever wonder how life might be different if you were born with the last name Trump? Or if you bought Microsoft stock 30 years ago when it sold for next to nothing? Or if you shot a basketball like Michael Jordan or hit a golf ball like Tiger Woods?
Or if the late Dale Earnhardt owned two airplanes instead of one when you were coming through the racing ranks?
Jimmie Johnson does.
OK, so the reigning Nextel Cup champion doesn't think about life as a Trump. He has plenty of money without Microsoft and he can do things with a race car like Jordan and Woods can with balls.
But Johnson's racing career definitely might have taken a different path if Earnhardt had two planes when former Dale Earnhardt Inc. executive Ty Norris recommended Johnson for a Busch Series ride.
As Norris recently recalled, he and Johnson discussed a Busch ride on a flight home from a race in St. Louis before Johnson had a deal with Hendrick Motorsports.
Johnson was all for it, so Norris took the proposal to Earnhardt the following Monday.
"He said, 'No. I'm not expanding my Busch team. I'm expanding my Cup team,' " said Norris, now the general manager at Michael Waltrip Racing. "So we went to three Cup teams and eliminated the Busch teams altogether."
The reason? Simple logistics.
"We had one airplane," Norris said with a laugh. "We had just come off the summer of racing at different places. Dale was very frustrated that he couldn't fly all of his Busch and Cup people like he wanted without buying another airplane.
"So he got mad and said, 'Forget it! I'm not going to be flying my planes all over the place because we're in two different places.' "
So instead of hiring Johnson to drive a Busch car, Earnhardt hired Waltrip to join Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Steve Park in the Cup program.
Johnson signed with Hendrick Motorsports, where since 2002 he has won 23 races and finished in the top five in points each season, capped by a title last season.
"There are tons of near-misses in the garage," Johnson said. "There were times when I was considered heavily for the Joe Gibbs car. There was a time when I was considered for Chip Ganassi [Racing].
"It's a wild game."
The opportunity wasn't the first for Johnson at DEI. As director of motorsports Richie Gilmore recalled, General Motors pushed hard for the company to sign Johnson at the same time Earnhardt Jr. was ready to enter the Busch Series in the late 1990s.
"It would have been interesting to see what we could have done with Jimmie," Gilmore said.
While Johnson has been dominant at Hendrick, DEI has struggled outside of Earnhardt Jr. The early promise Park showed never materialized after a serious accident at Darlington in 2001 and he was let go in 2003.
Waltrip won the Daytona 500 twice, as well as two other restrictor-plate races at Talladega, but never finished better than 14th in points before leaving to form his own company.
"They would have made a great combination," Gilmore said of Johnson and Earnhardt Jr. "Jimmie is a great race car driver. But at the end of the day, they went with Dale Jr."
But not without a lot of behind-the-scenes talk that Johnson still is learning about.
"The way it came to me, Dale finally said, 'I don't think you get it. My son is going to drive my Busch car,' " Johnson said. "There were a lot of things going on behind the scenes before I signed with Hendrick.
"As I found my way into the sport, I heard more and more stories about Earnhardt and Joe Gibbs and all of these people who knew who I was, and I had no idea. It makes you wonder."
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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