DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Of all the impressions left by Jeff Gordon on his NASCAR peers, none is more indelible than his mark on Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson.
The trajectory of the six-time Sprint Cup champion’s career permanently was altered by his first formal meeting with Gordon nearly 15 years ago.
“It was the wildest 30 minutes of my life,” Johnson said with a laugh Thursday on Daytona 500 Media Day.
Johnson had spent his first three seasons in the Xfinity Series trying to catch Gordon’s eye but had no luck with arranging a meeting until a Saturday morning in August 2000 at Michigan International Speedway. With his team on the verge of losing a sponsor and his options including a switch to another manufacturer, Johnson sought the counsel of Gordon.
“I needed advice,” Johnson said. “I knew Jeff left Bill Davis and Ford and went to Rick Hendrick and Chevy, so I thought he had the magic answer. I asked for a few minutes of time and introduced myself, and he brought me back to the transporter.”
Gordon indeed had some career guidance for Johnson – namely, that he was on the verge of being set for life with a NASCAR powerhouse.
“(Gordon) said, ‘You’re not going to believe this, but we’re talking about starting a fourth team, and your name is the only name that’s been brought up,’ ” said Johnson, who had gotten off to a nondescript start in NASCAR and wouldn’t win until midway through the following season. “In a 30-mintue window of time, it went from trying to work up the nerve to introduce myself to him, looking for some advice and then practically leading with the job. It was just insane.”
With Gordon poised to begin his final full-time season in NASCAR, it has triggered countless reflections on the impact of the four-time champion who changed the dynamics of multiple racing series. Bursting onto the scene in 1993 as a California native entering a circuit with predominantly Southern roots, Gordon paved the way for drivers with open-wheel backgrounds to make NASCAR their ultimate goal instead of the Indianapolis 500, and his success fostered a more welcoming environment among the stock-car community.
“He’s done so much on so many levels, and we’re all looking back and having some, ‘Aha!’ moments,” Johnson said. “Like wow, he really was instrumental in helping car owners and sponsors realizing there are drivers far and wide who can come in and be competitive. Now we have more drivers from California than any other state. It’s wild to think in NASCAR that’s the case.
“I think Jeff is responsible for that trend happening. … We needed a clean-cut well-spoken person to carry the sport. Jeff was that guy. His dominance helped our sport. The fact he gave me my chance, created a team to go racing, and what has happened from there. You won’t find another competitor singing his praises like me.”
There were many others who were Thursday at Daytona International Speedway. Here’s a sampling of drivers’ tributes to Gordon:
KYLE LARSON: “I always looked up to him as a kid watching on TV and trying to follow his career path as well as I could. He grew up in Northern California close to where I grew up. We raced sprint cars and Midgets at a lot of same racetracks and won a few of the same big races. Jeff was a guy I looked up to and paved the path for dirt guys to get to the Cup Series. Getting the chance to say I got to race with Jeff Gordon is pretty cool.
“I got to hang out with him a couple of times away from the track at Knoxville, Iowa. He sponsored our sprint car this year. I got to hang out with him the last couple of years as part of his Children’s Foundation Kick-It program. We’d hang out after the races at night. He’s a character. He’s a lot of fun, and that’s the kind of Jeff Gordon a lot of people don’t get to see. He’s definitely a fun guy to be around.”
JOEY LOGANO: “I think it is really cool I got to race against him. For me, I never got to race against Bobby Allison or Richard Petty but I got to race against Jeff Gordon and that is just as cool. For me personally, I watched him when I was 6 years old, that is when he first started and I was a big Jeff Gordon fan. Why? Because he was the young guy out there. I rooted for him. You never think then that you are going to race against him someday or race against him for wins like we did in Texas or for a championship like we did last year. That is really cool. … It is funny because when I was 7, the Hartford Courant interviewed me, and I said I was going to be Jeff Gordon’s worst nightmare. It is hilarious. I don’t think I am his worst nightmare by any means but it is so cool to race against him now.”
CASEY MEARS: “The most impressionable time I had (with) Jeff racing was the first time that I was in this series. I qualified right near him, and I was starting next to him in one of my first races ever. I couldn’t believe I was getting ready to start a race next to Jeff Gordon. Now it’s really crazy because he is one of my good friends. We just had dinner last night together. It’s crazy where life takes you.”
CLINT BOWYER: “It was an Atlanta, a long time ago, but we raced for like 30 laps. I was a lot faster than him and he knew it. I was running the bottom. I was really loose. I couldn’t get to the outside of him like I needed to. I’d go to the outside and get loose and would drive off four or five car lengths. I’d get back to his bumper in half a lap and try to get under him and he’d keep me pinched down. A couple of times I slid up and about got into him and wrecked us both. I was screaming at the spotter, ‘What the hell is doing?’ I was extremely frustrated and it just like something hit me about 30 laps later and I started laughing because I knew he was in his car laughing at me because I couldn’t get around him.
“(After the race) I’m trying to figure out if he’s going to be pissed. I was looking for him because I was upset. He was coming laughing at me. That was fun. That was one of the fun moments. I bet he remembers that.’’