Chase stretch run likely to test Gordon-Johnson friendship

10/12/2007 - NASCAR

CONCORD, N.C. -- Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson were sitting around the table on the first Tuesday of April, taking jabs at one another as they normally do on poker night.

"So, Jeff, pretty slick moves I made to win that race at Martinsville, huh?" Johnson said with a wry smile.

"Jimmie, I don't care what boss man Rick Hendrick says. Next time you block me like that I'm putting you in the wall," Gordon responded with a half-hearted laugh.

OK, so maybe those weren't their exact words or expressions.

But that the two were able to joke about a heated confrontation -- and it was very heated -- two days after Johnson held off his Hendrick Motorsports teammate in a bang-bang finish at Martinsville Speedway says a lot about their relationship.

"If we had the poker game Sunday night after Martinsville I don't think Jeff would have been in the mood to be harassed," Johnson said. "But as time goes on you get a beer or two in a guy and things lighten up."

If the relationship of any two drivers can survive a head-to-head battle for the Nextel Cup championship, this is it.

Good thing, because the title certainly looks like it will come down to one of them.

Gordon is nine points ahead of Johnson heading into Saturday night's race at Lowe's Motor Speedway. Clint Bowyer is 63 back and Tony Stewart trails by 154 with six races remaining.

Barring a major collapse between the two most consistent drivers this season, the crystal trophy that Johnson won a year ago will return to the halls of HMS a stone's throw away from this 1.5-mile facility.

"One of the first things I told him when he was coming to HMS is that we're good enough friends and we have similar personalities and that no matter what happens on the racetrack, we should be able to always get through it and put it aside off the racetrack," Gordon said.

"And yeah, I was mad at Martinsville. I was probably more mad that he beat me. [But] he did everything he should have done. No matter who that would have been, it would have been the same way."

That doesn't mean there won't be moments over the next six weeks when the relationship is strained, particularly if the two put on a last-lap show in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway the way they did at Martinsville and again on Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway.

Johnson was leading with Gordon seemingly content to push him to victory. But coming around the final corner Gordon jumped out of line in front of Stewart, who pushed the four-time Cup champion to the win and the points lead.

Johnson wasn't happy with finishing second any more than Gordon was after finishing second at Martinsville because Johnson blocked him more aggressively than he expected.

But neither blamed the other for doing what they had to do.

"I'm not saying that it's a piece of cake, especially if we get to Homestead and Jeff and I are fighting for the championship," Johnson said. "It's going to be very challenging.

"But through all the years and all the competitive moments we've had, we've always had a lot of respect for one another and I don't see that changing or being any different."

Gordon agreed.

"If things continue on the way they are, it's definitely going to push the limits of [the friendship] and put us to the test," he said. "We both want to win. We both want to win the championship.

"I know Jimmie well enough to know that our friendship is as important to him as it is to me, but we're race car drivers and we want that championship."

Communication and respect allow them to keep business from getting in the way of friendship.

Johnson acknowledges he wouldn't be where he is today if it weren't for Gordon, who co-owns his team with Hendrick and has been a mentor since Johnson came into NASCAR's premier series seven years ago.

Gordon acknowledges that Johnson's team, which was modeled after his and shares the same shop, has been the stronger of the two the past four years and has made his team stronger by doing so.

"We're very fierce competitors, trust me," Gordon said. "We love to beat one another and race one another. We have a lot of respect for one another. I think he's a tremendous talent.

"He's going to win more championships and he could win it this year. But the way he came into it, he sort of looked up to me and came to me for advice. That started out a relationship. I respected him on the racetrack; he respected me. And then we became friends."

Robbie Loomis was on the way to the airport, listening to the end of the Talladega race on the radio, when Johnson and Gordon came to the final lap.

"I knew Jimmie was in trouble," said the vice president of racing operations at Petty Enterprises and former crew chief for Gordon.

This wasn't the first time Loomis saw -- or in this case heard -- the two in a heated battle. None was more memorable than the Atlanta spring race in 2004, the year Johnson and Gordon eventually finished a close second and third to Kurt Busch in the inaugural Chase.

Johnson had the better car on restarts for about 7 to 10 laps. He felt Gordon should back off.

Jeff Gordon

If things continue on the way they are, it's definitely going to push the limits of [the friendship] and put us to the test. We both want to win. We both want to win the championship.

-- Jeff Gordon

"Instead, Jeff was laying it on its side to make him loose because Jeff knew our car was better lap 10 through 60," Loomis recalled.

The frustration led to choice words being said over the in-car radio. Most, as Loomis recalled, came from Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus.

"It's a tough situation," Loomis said. "It's not a comfortable situation. It's like you might feel someway about your brother or dad or mom, and you might say something. But, boy, as soon as you hear somebody else say something, you don't like it."

Gordon and Johnson are like brothers in many ways. They play together and hang out socially together, and in the heat of competition there's nobody they would rather beat.

But say something bad about the other and they quickly get on the defensive.

"In the end, with Jeff and Jimmie, they are good friends," Loomis said. "It's one of those things where you hurt when you leave Sunday night, but by the end of the week you're, 'I'm glad he won instead of somebody from another team.' "

Nobody was happier that Johnson won the championship last season than Gordon, and not just because he collected a large check as the owner.

"I was thrilled," he said. "Man, I was extremely thrilled. They'd been knocking on the door for so long. And we were out of it. So of course I wanted to see him win it."

That Johnson won the title, Loomis believes, makes it easier for the two to handle battling for the championship without jealousy.

"Jeff is a complete person and there's nothing that he's missing," said Loomis, who helped Gordon win his fourth title in 2001. "If at the end of the day Jimmie gets it, that's great."

That doesn't mean Gordon wants to win any less, or that one day his competitive juices might intensify the rivalry.

"If Jimmie gets to the point where Jimmie is going for five and Jeff is still on four, then it might change a little bit," Loomis said. "Jeff's still the senior statesman."

Mutual fan club
Steve Letarte, who replaced Loomis late in the 2005 season, leaned back in a folding chair and thought about the upcoming weeks.

"For sure there's going to be some tense moments if it comes down to those two," he said. "But they do a remarkable job of separating it. It's because Jimmie won a championship. If he was going for his first it might be harder to co-exist.

"But going for your second you're more reluctant to be aggressive, more likely to listen to your veteran and follow in his footsteps. That's what Jimmie does."

Johnson admits he has more respect for Gordon now than he did in 2004, which says a lot because there was nobody he respected more then. Gordon admits there's no driver he respects more than Johnson.

"I was talking to Jeff the other day about how good I thought he was at Talladega," said Ray Evernham, who was the crew chief for Gordon's first three titles. "He said, 'I'm going to tell you something. Johnson is good.'

"Two guys that have respect like that are professionals are going to be extremely competitive. They're also going to accept that and get along."

But Gordon agreed that having four championships makes it easier on his part.

"There's nothing that says I need to do this or I need to do that, or I haven't done this and so this is what's left," he said. "It's not like that for me. That's the only difference between me and Jimmie. He's still trying to establish himself as one of the all-time greats."

Another perspective
Brian Vickers was trailing Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. on the final lap of last season's October race at Talladega when Johnson made his move for the lead. Vickers tried to go with him, taking both drivers out to collect his first Cup victory.

Vickers and Johnson didn't fully mend that relationship for a month and a half.

"Obviously, if something happens and Jeff and Jimmie are in the heat of a battle, they'll probably get upset with each other," said Vickers, who left HMS after last season to join Team Red Bull. "It took more than one night of sleeping on it for Jimmie and I to get back to where we were after Talladega.

"But Jeff and Jimmie are different. Some race drivers and some athletes are good at leaving the race deal on the track. Some aren't. Those two guys are the best at it."

Jimmie Johnson

It will get more and more intense, but our relationship and the dynamic we have as teammates, friends, it won't change.

-- Jimmie Johnson

Casey Mears, who replaced Vickers at HMS, can't imagine the championship coming between his two teammates.

"Off the track, they're both too strong to let something on the track affect their personal relationship," he said. "Obviously, this is a very stout, competitive series and a lot is on the line for it.

"Yes, Jeff wants that fifth championship. I know Jimmie wants a second one. They'll be fighting to the end, but at the same time they'll be realistic that what happens on [the] racetrack in Miami won't affect what happens on the outside."

Vickers agreed, but wouldn't be surprised if a cooling-off period is needed if it's a close finish at Homestead.

"After that incident with Jimmie at Talladega we didn't see eye-to-eye on it at first," he said. "We were cordial and we spoke, but we didn't get back to the way we were before the incident until New Years when we took a vacation together.

"Over cocktails we hashed it out and everything has been great ever since. The same method will come of it as these two battle for the championship. It must might be resolved a little more quickly."

In the beginning
Gordon was coming off his fourth championship when Johnson began his first full Cup season in 2002.

Over the next five years Johnson won 23 races and finished no worse than fifth in the final standings, including two runner-up finishes. He outclassed Gordon, who won 17 times and had two finishes outside the top five, missing the Chase entirely in 2005.

Even this season, when Gordon had more than a 300-point lead in the regular season, he started second in the Chase because Johnson earned two more wins (six) for an additional 20 bonus points.

Jealousy? Johnson hasn't seen it.

"I don't know if I'd call it jealousy," he said. "There's a competitive spirit between us. He doesn't strike me as a jealous guy. It's just a competitive rivalry. There's nothing negative from it."

That doesn't mean Gordon hasn't been envious of Johnson's success. But that is more to do with not being on top of his game than anything Johnson has done.

And, yes, being the co-owner of Johnson's team has helped.

"That does help ease the pain a little bit at the end of the day," Gordon said. "That's about all that does. You know it's never, ever been an issue for me except for when I know we're capable of winning.

"When we're capable of winning the championship then the competitor in me feels like we need to do our best and be our best and be in Victory Lane celebrating. There have been times along the way, if we're both honest, when we have felt both sides of it."

Lifestyle changes
Johnson doesn't come to Gordon for advice nearly as much as he once did because he's more confident in his own abilities. The two don't hang out in New York City clubs as they once did, either, primarily because Gordon's life has changed since he remarried and became a first-time father.

But the two still get together with their wives for dinner, living only a few miles apart in Charlotte, N.C. when Gordon's not staying at his New York City condo. They still get together for poker night and plan trips with each other.

Only now their conversations have less to do with business.

"He helped me get off my feet and I haven't been in a situation that I needed much help with driving the car and the business stuff and stuff like that," Johnson said.

"So our conversation is probably less on the work side and more on the personal side and what each other is doing, how many diapers have you changed this week and things like this."

Gordon said Johnson is at a place in his career that he was after his first title in 1995.

"He's at that point where it's great to win one championship," he said. "If you want to start separating yourself from the rest of the guys out there, you've got to be a multiple champion.

"There is, to me, a huge difference from the guys that have won one championship and none, and there is an even bigger difference from the guys who have won one and the guys who have won two."

And there is an even bigger difference between drivers that have won two titles and those that have won more.

"That list starts to become very short," Gordon said. "And Jimmie wants to be on that list. So he's after a little bit something different and he's got that passionate desire, and that's why he does as well as he does, because he wants it that bad."

The Hendrick factor
Hendrick stood on pit road during Thursday night's qualifying at LMS, smiling just as big when Gordon temporarily had the pole as he did when Johnson had it.

If there is one thing everybody at HMS agrees upon, it's that Hendrick is the reason relationships such as the one Gordon and Johnson have survived.

"Where it all really stems from, and the attitude and the way things are structured and handled and what makes it work, comes from Rick," Mears said. "He's just a real genuine guy and wants the best from everybody.

"At the same time, he wants what's best for the race team. It all keeps us on the same team how he wants his team and wants it to be run. It starts at the top and filters down."

Vickers said nobody is better at getting people to work together than Hendrick.

"And the best I've ever seen at getting people to work together that don't want to work together," he said.

Loomis believes that's a big reason Hendrick let rising star Kyle Busch go after this season to sign Dale Earnhardt Jr.

"He built such respect in this company all the way through," he said. "He wants people to see that things are bigger than beyond themselves. This year he made a change because maybe this guy wasn't getting it, and maybe this guy Junior, maybe he's going to understand."

Hendrick totally understands. That's why he gave Gordon the big-picture speech when Gordon was ready to take Johnson out at Martinsville.

That's why he typically goes to the driver who finished second before he congratulates the winner.

"Nobody wants to run second to anybody," Hendrick said after Johnson's win at Martinsville. "That's a good thing. Tomorrow morning we'll look at the points and we'll say it was a good weekend."

Back to Martinsville
Gordon spent 39 laps unsuccessfully trying to get around Johnson at Martinsville. He got so frustrated that he asked Hendrick for permission, which he didn't get, to knock his teammate out of the way.

The frustration mounted to the point he radioed Letarte and said, "If he's going to race me like that, he's not going to give me no freaking choice."

Two days later, the two indeed were having dinner and playing poker like nothing happened.

"He was disappointed because he felt Jimmie was going to give something to him because he ran him down so easily," Letarte said. "At the same time, he doesn't want to win like that. That's not how he taught Jimmie. He taught Jimmie to be tooth and nail to the end."

Nobody wants to run second to anybody. That's a good thing.

-- Rick Hendrick

Letarte would expect no less in the Chase. And if Johnson wins the title, he's certain it will take Gordon a while to get over the disappointment. Not because he lost to Johnson, but because he lost period.

"We've been working a year for this," he said. "It's kind of one of those things where it takes as long to recover as it took to get there. Qualifying day, it doesn't take that long. A race, it might take a couple of days.

"A championship? It might take a month."

Gordon knows he'll be mad if he doesn't win the title, "and it's going to be a challenge personally, for me and this entire team."

"This year, as long as we're a factor, then I don't want anyone else to win it. I want us to win it," said Gordon, who will start fourth on Saturday. "But I can tell you if we don't get it done, even though I'm going to be angry and wish we had done whatever it took to have won it, at the end of the day, maybe a couple of days later [he laughs], I'm going to be extremely happy for him.

"Not because we're teammates, but because we're friends."

Johnson feels the same way. Both agree only one thing can change that.

"The only way it would end was if somebody got upset and [said], 'I'm going to crash you,' " Johnson said. "If we do get together and things happen, that's the stuff that would put a strain on our friendship or relationship.

"If you get passed and beat fair and square it's one thing. But when you start crashing each other, that's when you strain your relationship."

That's not likely to happen between these two, whose reputation as gentlemen racers is second to none.

"It will get more and more intense, but our relationship and the dynamic we have as teammates, friends, it won't change," said Johnson, who will start second on Saturday. "I have no plans or intentions to cross the line and take cheap shots at my car owner and friend, and I know he feels the same way."

As much pressure as it could put on their relationship, Gordon and Johnson relish the thought of battling for the title at Homestead.

"That would be the perfect situation for us to be in, but then it would be tough and wouldn't be a lot of fun living it," Johnson said. "But I hope we have that problem. That would be a good problem to have."

It would make for good Tuesday night poker bantering as well.

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.