Jimmie Johnson reflects on some of the best stories of his career

Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images for SiriusXM
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With seven championships and 83 victories in Cup, it’s pretty clear Jimmie Johnson loves to win.

But there’s something else Johnson loves to do: Tell stories and reflect on his racing career, particularly before he became one of NASCAR’s most legendary drivers.

Before leaving Thursday for Sunday’s Folds of Honor Quik Trip 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Johnson spent time reminiscing and telling stories about his racing development on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s Happy Hours with Kevin Harvick and Matt Yocum. He also talked about competing in next month’s Boston Marathon.

Here are some excerpts of Johnson’s tales, related from the pool house/radio studio at Harvick’s house in Charlotte:

Home Sweet Hornaday

Early in the careers of Johnson and Harvick, both were short on cash. As a result, they crashed on the couch of NASCAR Hall of Famer Ron Hornaday Jr. as they were working their way up the racing ladder.

“I never saw Kevin,” Johnson said of Harvick. “I saw his luggage. We seemed to be passing and racing in different places all the time.”

Added Harvick, “I think back to Hornaday’s house and that time, and (Johnson) had some unique gatherings at your house, as well. Hornaday always had a spot that everybody showed up to, but Jimmie’s house was always entertaining, as well.”

It almost was IndyCar and not NASCAR for Johnson

Long before NASCAR and stock car racing were even a possibility, Johnson began his racing career on two wheels, racing dirt bikes. His grandparents owned a motorcycle shop near San Diego.

“Really, my whole world, all my heroes, everybody I looked up to were on two wheels,” Johnson said. “We just loved racing. I’d go to many races, a lot of sprint car races, went to Riverside (now-defunct Riverside International Raceway) a couple times and hung on the fences in the esses and watched Richard Petty make a straight line out of it and throw a lot of dirt around the place.

“Then, in the early 1990s, I got a chance to race a buggy in the Mickey Thompson Stadium Series. Through that and my dad’s relationship with B.F. Goodrich Tires, it got me a chance to race other types of off-road buggies in the desert and stadiums. That’s kind of the world I was in. Then Herb Fishel (GM motorsports manager) spotted me in the Los Angeles Coliseum in 1991 or 1992 (at the age of 15 or 16) and they were looking to bring a second truck along, so I took a Polaroid (picture) with him.

“He went back to Detroit, threw it on the conference room table and said, ‘Let’s put this guy under contract, he’s going to develop our second stadium truck. That was my introduction into Chevrolet. And I thought IndyCar was going to be my route, but (Chevy) pulled out of IndyCar and said if I wanted a future in motorsports, NASCAR is where it’s at. And then, Hornaday’s couch, here I come.

“I was just trying to figure it all out. I’m still trying to figure it out, I guess. My whole view and world was just dirt-related. I didn’t think much of the asphalt side, especially stock-car racing. (IndyCar) seemed interesting, also the Toyota Long Beach Grand Prix was right there in the area, so IndyCar was a bit of an idea, but I didn’t think it was going to work out.”

How stalking Jeff Gordon paid off

Johnson was racing in the Busch Series with Stan and Randy Herzog in 2000. Johnson had previously raced two seasons in off-road competition and then ASA Racing for the Herzogs, and Fishel had hoped they could groom him as well as build a Cup team themselves.

Unfortunately, the Herzogs said they couldn’t afford to go Cup racing and told Johnson he could seek out other deals.

“The Herzogs said if they couldn’t find a sponsor, they didn’t want to hold me back, and that maybe I should put word out that I’m available,” Johnson said. “Opportunities came along, but they all meant leaving Chevrolet. I was struggling with that and couldn’t do it.

“I needed to get some advice, so I totally stalked Jeff Gordon at the August 2000 Michigan race. He gave me some advice and said, ‘Man, you’re not going to believe this, but (Hendrick Motorsports) is looking to start a fourth team and the only name that has come up is yours. So we might be able to fix your problem altogether.’

“A month later, I had a signed contract with (Hendrick) to start in 2002 (he would race one more season in Busch for the Herzogs in 2001, with significant help from the Hendrick camp).”

How Johnson won his first championship – with a broken leg

At 8 years old, Johnson was seeking his first dirt bike championship. The season was growing late, and he took a jump but landed the wrong way.

“I went down, got tangled up with the bike, I destroyed my left knee, broke my tibia and fibula and in the end, was in a cast for nine months when it was all said and done,” Johnson recalled. “I was tied for (the lead in) points, and we rigged something up and welded something to the front of the bike, brought my leg up, and I rode the next two events, got the starting points and was able to win the championship.

“For me, I go back to school, I had to try so hard to accomplish what I needed to. I learned things differently and was a little slow in picking things up. But when I’ve been focused about accomplishing something or I’m passionate about it, I just go all-in. And that all-in is what’s helped me through my whole life.”

Oh, dear – uh, make that deer

Johnson recalled how he was in a group riding bikes in some off-time during one of the Pocono race weekends when a deer decided to crash the party – and almost crashed into Johnson and some of his fellow riders, as well.

“We’ve had a couple run-ins with deer, for sure,” Johnson said. “We had this mini-tornado come through and about crashed us all out. We had to hang on to trees.

“Then I did a big charity ride a few years back and we had some deer running next to us in the field, they made a turn and tried to come across the road and just about wiped us all out. It was like Talladega all over again.”

I’m holding out for a hero

Harvick explained how four-time Indianapolis 500 winner Rick Mears was his hero growing up in Bakersfield, California.

Which led to Johnson talking about his own hero growing up: legendary off-road racer Ivan “The Iron Man” Stewart – and how he became the focus of an equally legendary book report for Johnson on his favorite driver.

“(Stewart) lived in our neighborhood and the one that really stalked Ivan to help me with my book report was my mom,” Johnson said. “Her school bus route went right by his house. I had started my book report about (Stewart). My mom knew she probably could help and popped in to see Linda, his wife, because we all knew each other from the off-road (racing) community.

“She came home with a life-size cutout of Ivan and all these pictures and stats and stuff. It was probably one of the only A’s I ever got in school.”

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Texas Xfinity results: Noah Gragson wins playoff opener

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Noah Gragson is rolling through the NASCAR Xfinity Series like a bowling ball headed toward a strike.

Gragson won for the fourth consecutive race Saturday, taking the lead with 11 laps left and winning the 300-mile race at Texas Motor Speedway. The victory put Gragson in the second round of the playoffs.

Finishing behind him in the top five were Austin Hill, Ty Gibbs, AJ Allmendinger and Riley Herbst.

Texas Xfinity results

The race was pockmarked by wrecks, scrambling the 12-driver playoff field.

POINTS REPORT

Noah Gragson remains the points leader after his win. He has 2,107 points. AJ Allmendinger is next, 26 points behind.

Sam Mayer and Ryan Sieg hold the final two transfer spots. They are one point ahead of Riley Herbst, eight points ahead of Daniel Hemric, 13 points ahead of Brandon Jones and 29 points ahead of Jeremy Clements.

Texas Xfinity driver points

The Xfinity playoffs will continue Oct. 1 at Talladega Superspeedway (2 p.m. ET, USA Network).

Noah Gragson wins Xfinity race at Texas Motor Speedway

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Noah Gragson opened the NASCAR Xfinity Series playoffs the same way he has run much of the season.

Gragson sidestepped a web of issues plaguing playoff drivers and won Saturday’s 300-mile race at Texas Motor Speedway, tying a decades-old Xfinity record by winning for the fourth consecutive race. Sam Ard, formerly a series mainstay, won four in a row in 1983.

Gragson, continuing to establish himself as the championship favorite, took the lead with 11 laps to go from Jeb Burton as most of the day’s leaders were running different tire and fuel strategies over the closing laps.

Gragson, 24 and set to jump to the Cup Series next season, led 85 laps. He won by 1.23 seconds.

“This number 9 team, man, they’re on fire,” Gragson told NBC Sports. “Luke Lambert (crew chief) and the boys executed a great race.”

MORE: Texas Xfinity results

The win was Gragson’s seventh of the year. Following in the top five were Austin Hill, Ty Gibbs, AJ Allmendinger and Riley Herbst.

The victory pushed Gragson into the second round of the playoffs.

A big crash at the front of the field on lap 117 changed the face of the race. John Hunter Nemechek lost control of his car on the outside and was clipped by Justin Allgaier, starting a wreck that scrambled most of the field. Damages forced playoff drivers Daniel Hemric, Brandon Jones and Allgaier from the race.

“The 7 (Allgaier) chose the top behind me, and I haven’t seen the replay of it, but the 7 chose the top behind me and started pushing,” Nemechek said. “The 21 (Hill) made it three-wide on the 9 (Gragson), and I was three-wide at the top, and I think we ended up four-wide at one point, which doesn’t really work aero-wide in the pack.”

Pole winner Jones, a playoff driver taken out in the crash, said Nemechek “was pushing a little too hard. Nothing to fault him there for, but probably a little early to be going that far. It is what it is.”

Six laps earlier, another multi-car crash scattered the field and damaged the car of playoff contender and regular season champion Allmendinger.

The wreck started when Brandon Brown slipped in front of Allmendinger and went into a slide, forcing Allmendinger to the inside apron. Several cars scattered behind them trying to avoid the accident.

Allmendinger’s crew repaired his car and he later had the race lead.

Playoff driver Jeremy Clements had a tough day. He parked with what he called mysterious mechanical issues about halfway through the race.

Below the cutline after the first race are Herbst, Hemric, Jones and Clements.

Stage 1 winner: Daniel Hemric

Stage 2 winner: AJ Allmendinger

Who had a good race: Noah Gragson is threatening to turn the final weeks of the Xfinity season into a cakewalk. He clearly had the day’s dominant car Saturday in winning for the fourth race in a row. … AJ Allmendinger’s car was damaged in a wreck in heavy traffic, but his crew taped parts of the car and gave him an opening to finish fourth.

Who had a bad race: Jeremy Clements, in the playoff field, finished 36th after parking with mechanical trouble near the race’s halfway point. … Jeffrey Earnhardt crashed only 17 laps into the race and finished last.

Next: The second race in the first round of the Xfinity playoffs is scheduled Oct. 1 at 4 p.m. ET (USA Network) at Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama.

Cup drivers are for changing Texas but leery about making it another Atlanta

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FORT WORTH, Texas — Some Cup drivers are concerned that a reconfigured Texas Motor Speedway could create racing similar to Atlanta, adding another type of superspeedway race to the NASCAR calendar.

While Texas officials have not stated publicly any plans to make changes, some competitors feel Sunday’s playoff race (3:30 p.m. ET on USA Network) could be the final event on this track’s current layout. 

With the All-Star Race moving from Texas to North Wilkesboro next year, Texas Motor Speedway’s lone Cup race will take place Sept. 24, 2023. That could provide time for any alterations. Work on changing Atlanta began in July 2021 and was completed by December 2021. 

Reigning Cup champion Kyle Larson said work needs to be done to Texas Motor Speedway.

“I would like them to demolish this place first and then start over from scratch,” Larson said Saturday. “For one, they did a very poor job with the reconfiguration, initial reconfiguration. 

“I would like to see them change it from a mile-and-a-half to something shorter. I don’t know if that means bringing the backstretch in or whatever. 

“If I could build a track, it’d be probably a three-quarter mile Bristol basically, pavement and progressive banking. But I don’t know if that’s even possible here. I’m not sure what they have in mind, but anything would be better than what they did.”

Former Cup champion Joey Logano worries about another superspeedway race with such events at Daytona, Talladega and now Atlanta. 

“Do we need more superspeedways?” Logano asked Saturday. “Is that the type of racing fans want to see? Because when you look at the way that people have finished up front in these superspeedways lately, (they) are the ones that are riding around in the back. 

“Do you believe that you should be rewarded for not working? Because that’s what they’re doing. They’re riding around in the back not working, not going up there to put a good race on. They’re riding around in the back and capitalizing on other people’s misfortune for racing up front trying to win. I don’t think it’s right. That’s not racing. I can’t get behind that.”

Logano said he wants to have more control in how he finishes, particularly in a playoff race. 

“I want to be at tracks where I can make a difference, where my team can make a difference, and we’re not at the mercy of a wreck that happened in front of us that we couldn’t do anything about,” he said.

Discussions of changing the track follow complaints about how tough it is to pass at this 1.5-mile speedway.

“Once you get to the top, it’s almost like the bottom (lane) is very, very weak,” Daniel Suarez said.

Suarez has mixed feelings about the idea of turning Texas into another Atlanta-style race.

“Atlanta was a very good racetrack, and then they turned it into a superspeedway and it’s a lot of fun,” Suarez said. “I see it as a hybrid. I don’t think we need another racetrack like that, but it’s not my decision to make. Whatever they throw out at us, I’m going to try to be the best I can be.”

Suarez hopes that Texas can be like what it once was.

“Maybe with some work, we can get this race track to what it used to be, a very wide race track, running the bottom, running the middle, running the top,” he said.  

“As a race car driver, that’s what you want. You want that ability to run around and to show your skills. In superspeedways … everyone is bumping, everyone is pushing, and you can not show your skills as much.”

Chase Briscoe would be OK with a change to Texas, but he wants it to be more like a track other than Atlanta.

“If we’re really going to change and completely start from scratch, I would love another Homestead-type racetrack,” Briscoe said. “The problem is any time you build a new race track, it’s not going to be slick and worn out for a while. It’s trying to figure out what’s best to maximize those first couple of years to get it good by the end. 

“I think Homestead is a great model, if we’re going to build another mile and a half. I think we’re going to have to look at what they have, the progressive banking, the shape of the race track is different. I just think it’s a really good race track, and I think it always puts on really good racing. Anything we could do to try to match that, that would be my vote.”

Denny Hamlin just hopes some sort of change is made to Texas.

“I’d rather have another Atlanta than this, honestly,” Hamlin said. “Anything will be better than kind of what we have here.”

NASCAR shares prayers for Stewart-Haas Racing engineer

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FORT WORTH, Texas — The NASCAR garage is sharing its prayers for Stewart-Haas Racing engineer DJ VanderLey, who was injured Thursday night in a crash during a micro sprint Outlaw race at the Texas Motor Speedway dirt track.

He suffered several fractured vertebrae and has a spinal cord injury, according to a post from his wife Jordan on her Facebook page. 

Two GoFundMe accounts have been set up to help the family with medical costs. 

VanderLey was Chase Briscoe’s engineer for four years, and they are good friends.

“I hate that it happened to anybody,” Briscoe said Saturday at Texas Motor Speedway, “but for it to hit close to home has definitely been tough for me.”

Briscoe said he planned to visit VanderLey in the hospital on Saturday and that “I just hope that everybody continues to pray. That’s really all we can do at this point, trying to hope he gets better.”

Christopher Bell calls VanderLey among his best friends. VanderLey was Bell’s engineer at Kyle Busch Motorsports in 2016. 

Bell spent the night at the hospital and also picked up Jordan VanderLey at the airport when she arrived. 

Stewart-Haas Racing had a decal for VanderLey on Riley Herbst‘s No. 98 Xfinity car for Saturday’s race.