- Marty Smith, NASCAR
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HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- No surprise, if it's up to Rick Hendrick, Jimmie Johnson will drive a Hendrick Motorsports racecar for the remainder of his career.
Hendrick said he is fully prepared to do whatever it takes to retain Johnson's services for as long as he drives professionally in the Nextel Cup Series. Money. Assets. Car dealerships. And most importantly, championship-caliber racecars.
"My goal with him is real simple -- to keep him with me for as long as he races," Hendrick said.
"It's a flattering comment, and I think I kind of knew that," Johnson said. "But it's something we've never talked about or put on the table."
Back in 1999, Hendrick made a landmark decision to sign Jeff Gordon to a lifetime driving contract. With that came equity partnership in the company, and eventually partial ownership of the No. 48 car Johnson drives.
"Jeff and I have an unbelievable relationship, and Jimmie and I have developed the same thing," Hendrick said. "It's just one of those situations where [Gordon] meant so much to our company, and he's been there for me when I was sick and everything else.
"He wanted to do [the lifetime contract]. I wanted to do that. So we did it."
It's as much about intangibles as it is talent.
"It can't be just talent -- it's a lot of things that come along with the talent," Hendrick said. "And Jimmie is surely that kind of guy. So again, my goal is real simple. I'm going to give him the best equipment and take care of him, pay him as much as anybody's going to get paid and give him opportunity off the track."
Hendrick co-owns Jimmie Johnson Chevrolet in San Diego, and the two have commercial real estate partnerships together, as well.
"I've been blessed with a lot of great opportunities, and I'm certainly not starving right now," Johnson said. "If we get the job done and win this championship, there will be more opportunities at Hendrick, with Lowe's in building more stock and presence with Lowe's and other sponsors that may want to come on board, so directionally it would be going the right way. We just haven't talked about it yet."
Like Gordon, Johnson presents the unique package that includes both elite driving talent and premiere marketability. He signed a long-term contract extension in 2006 that runs through 2010, but in a sport in which premiums are placed on the aforementioned attributes owners are often required to renegotiate contract extensions long before their current deals are set to expire.
Hence, a lifetime deal is a possibility.
"He says that's what he wants to do," Hendrick said. "So we'll be looking at every option and everything that can come down the road that can do that. That's not just from this year. I've felt that way since his second or third year. We've all always talked about being together.
"There's two ways of looking at it, too. Jimmie understands that for him to do what he needs to do, he has to have the team behind him. Not speaking for Jimmie, but if you look at what he's won, what he won last year and what he's going to win this year, somebody might try to pay you a little more money on the front end but can you make as much overall?
"That's the key to this thing. That's why guys usually end up staying. I'm going to do whatever I've got to do to keep Jimmie Johnson."
Marty Smith is a contributor to ESPN's NASCAR coverage. He can be reached at ESPNsider@aol.com.