All's friendly in Hendrick camp

Updated: September 19, 2004, 8:22 PM ET
By Justin Hagey | ESPN.com

Jimmie Johnson
Johnson
Jeff Gordon
Gordon
LOUDON, N.H. -- They're only four years apart in age, and it seems everywhere Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson go, the gap is even less.

The Hendrick Motorsports drivers aren't brothers, according to their biographies, but there's ample evidence wherever you turn that indeed they are. Their last names have just been changed to carry on the hoax.

Don't believe it? Consider the evidence.

Gordon sits first in the Nextel Cup standings as NASCAR begins its 10-race championship chase this weekend at Hew Hampshire International Speedway.

Right behind him in second? Johnson.

Their two gleaming haulers sit side-by-side in the track's infield, No. 24 and No. 48, two peas in a pod. It's the same back at the shop in Harrisburg, N.C., where on 4443 Papa Joe Hendrick Blvd., the curious can view two teams operating under the same roof as one.

Gordon even owns part of Johnson's No. 48 team, the ultimate cover-your-bets move in a sport that usually sees so-called buddies shoving each other into concrete walls and calling it one of them racin' deals later, right before the pit road obscenities begin.

"I wanted it to be owned under one umbrella," Gordon offers simply.

It wasn't at all like this in 1996, the last time two Hendrick teams split the NASCAR universe between themselves, when Terry Labonte won the Cup title and Gordon finished a mere 37 points behind.

"Our crew chiefs didn't even speak to each other," Labonte said, chuckling. "So we didn't exactly share a lot of information. It's not quite the same with these two now."

Hardly. Labonte and Gordon's teams were on opposite sides of the team complex, and the imagery is accurate: While friendly, they weren't friends the way Gordon and Johnson seem to be.

In a recent USA Today cover story, Gordon raved about Johnson's demeanor and skills and called him, "a good, solid person."

Johnson gushed back, saying Gordon had given him his "golden ticket" into NASCAR's big show and he knew he couldn't let him down.

Friday in the media center at NHIS, the love affair continued. Gordon would answer a question about himself and Johnson, and JJ would respond with, "I second that."

Or this gem, which it should be noted, was said with a twinkle in his eye and smile on his face: "I think what Jeff said is dead on, well said, and I don't have anything to add to it."

There are only two logical responses to this turn of events: 1, Throw up, or 2, Go find somebody to throw a cold towel over this burning love-in.

After all, the two men who begin the inaugural Nextel Cup title chase 1-2 and darlings in Las Vegas books cannot possibly like each other this much, can they?

One driver doesn't buy it. Mark Martin, the 45-year-old rebel in this Chase among mostly young guns, shakes his head and then levels the boom.

"They aren't on the same team," Martin said. "That's the wrong term. They have the same owner. There's no such thing, really, as teammates out there."

Thinking the Gordon-Johnson brainwashing had been exposed, this news was rushed to Gordon's attention. He didn't even blink. "On the racetrack, I agree with that," he said. "When you're on the racetrack, you battle for a win and for a championship, and the teammate thing goes out the window when you're on the track in the closing laps."

A tough one to crack. Perhaps it's because he's won four Cup titles. Maybe Johnson, four years younger at 29 and without any Cup hardware, will be an easier foe.

"We're teammates, we're intense, but we treat each other with respect and that's what you've got to do to be a champion in this sport, whether or not you're teammates," Johnson said, calmly lobbing the ball back into our court.

OK, Labonte, you're also a teammate of these two. Can you help us out? We're starting to believe Gordon when he says he believes either man can win, and will be happy either way.

"If it comes down to it, it will be interesting to see how that works out between Jimmie and Jeff and the two teams parked right next to each other in the same garage," Labonte offers. "Everybody wants to win, and it's no different between those two. They're going to do everything they can to try and win."

And so there you have it. It all seems too good to be true, but maybe there's hope yet. After all, there's 10 races to go and a title to be won.

Labonte said whatever happens, if the Hendrick teams score a 1-2 for Jim Hendrick again, the car owner will be happy and sad.

"He was more worried about it than anybody (back in '96)," Labonte said. "He was concerned about the team that was going to finish second. We told him, 'Look, you'd better enjoy this, because you're going to win either way.'"

Justin Hagey is motorsports editor for ESPN.com.

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