Racing beat

| February 28, 2007

Jimmie Johnson

NASCAR hasn’t had back-to-back Cup champions since Jeff Gordon accomplished the feat during the 1997 and ’98 seasons. With the 2007 campaign under way it’s Gordon’s teammate, Jimmie Johnson, who is out to make it two for two.

Johnson was a model of consistency once the Chase for the Nextel Cup began, and the result was his first title in stock car racing’s premiere division.

“It’s an amazing feeling to be able to be a champion,” Johnson says. “It’s something I always wanted to be, worked my whole career to get to this point.”

Johnson also realizes there are other goals to accomplish in what he hopes is a long career.
“I guess the second time is really something that I’m looking at,” he says.

Although it’s hard to imagine a time when Johnson struggled, like most racers he had growing pains while working his way through the ranks.

“I remember coming through all the different levels,” Johnson says. “I only spent two years in any division. I was on a fast pace moving through the different classes, vehicles, from dirt to asphalt, on and on.

“I really didn’t start peaking until I got into Cup. There’s been points along the way here where I thought, ‘Wow, if it all ended tomorrow without the championship, I’ve had an amazing, amazing career, so much to be thankful for.’ As the years go by, things keep getting sweeter, better, more success keeps coming. It’s just been an amazing ride.”

Johnson’s Cup career began in 2001 when he ran three races for Hendrick Motorsports.

“At that point I was just worried about making an event,” he says. “Those three races were a chance for me to get my feet wet. As the rookie season started, I knew deep down inside that I needed to win a race, I needed to make my mark in that 48 car, especially with Jeff coming off of a championship season.”

Facing adversity during the 2006 season paved the way to his first title, Johnson admits.

Not only did Johnson claim the sport’s biggest prize last season, he also was victorious at its two biggest events – the Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400.

“The high that you’re on from winning a race is short-lived,” Johnson says. “I get an entire year of riding this high. I’m going to enjoy every damn day of it.”

Just how different is it to be a champion instead of the runner-up?

“There’s no comparison,” Johnson says. “There’s a lot of motivation being runner-up and being so close to it, especially sitting through the banquet, watching the champion experience all the great things, sit on stage. I think anybody with a competitive spirit wants that to be them.”

In December of last year, Johnson finally was the center of attention. And throughout the remainder of the 2007 schedule, he will remain the champion 42 other drivers are hoping to dethrone.


REMEMBER HIM?
Brian Vickers poised for action with a new team after infamous run-in with the champ

Imagine a football team running off the field victorious, only to have its fans turn their backs on the players.

Imagine being Brian Vickers, circa 2006.

Sure, the beer-can barrage was expected last October at Talladega Superspeedway when Vickers knocked Johnson, his teammate, and fan favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr. out of the 1-2 positions to win his first Cup race. But when team ownership wanted the teammate’s teammate to win – that’s a kick to the stomach.

Vickers probably felt like the abandoned football team when he won the UAW-Ford 500 at NASCAR’s Most Competitive Track.

Not only did a bump-draft bump Hendrick Motorsports point man Johnson out of a chance to win; it ended the hopes of Earnhardt Jr., who was well on his way to taking the checker.

Killing two birds with one stone earned a stoning by his own racing family.

“I got a run on (Earnhardt) and got inside of him, got hit from behind and it turned me into him and off we went,” Johnson said.

“I’m upset. I’m disappointed. It’s sad,” Chad Knaus, Johnson’s crew chief, said. “I hate it for (sponsor) Lowe’s, and I hate it for Hendrick Motorsports, and I hate it for everybody.”
Ouch.

First, a little background.

In 2007 Vickers is part of Team Red Bull. He asked team owner Rick Hendrick to be released from his contract, and Hendrick obliged, allowing Vickers to tool around this season in a Toyota. But before Vickers got a fresh start, he was already the odd man out at Hendrick Motorsports.

Hendrick decided to ban Vickers from team meetings, since he wasn’t going to be part of the team much longer.

Obviously, Hendrick figured if one of his drivers won the UAW-Ford 500, it would be Johnson.
It wasn’t.

“I hate it for Jimmie, and I hate it for Junior,” Vickers says of the finish to the Talladega event, which was voted on by race fans as the top moment in 2006 NASCAR Nextel Cup competition. “But I don’t think I’m known as an aggressive driver who goes out there and causes wrecks. Jimmie is a friend and a teammate, but I understand why he’s upset.”

Take away the controversy, and this was one of the feel-good stories of the year.

It was Vickers’ first career victory at stock car racing’s highest level, and it came in his 107th start.

And he dedicated his victory to Ricky Hendrick, the son of the team owner who was killed along with nine other family members and friends in a 2004 plane crash.

Instead, Vickers entered the 2007 asphalt wars known as the guy who wrecked his teammate.

“Junior’s been in this situation before, and I really respect what he said after the race,” says Vickers, referring to Earnhardt’s remarks that Vickers had “made a smart move” in trying to push Johnson. “And I feel like the guys out there respect me. Hopefully when the time’s right, Jimmie and everybody will understand it.”

Fortunately Vickers wasn’t completely shunned at the end of the day. Rick Hendrick did show up in victory lane and was cordial to the driver. And Knaus says there are no hard feelings – at least between himself and Vickers’ crew chief, Lance McGrew.

Still, it was a victory that was rather short on celebration.

“I wasn’t planning on jumping up and down and shouting, ‘I won, I won’ when I got to victory lane,” Vickers says. “But at the same time, it was exciting.”

Most everyone, except Junior, came out winners. Johnson and Knaus were able to celebrate a Cup crown, and Vickers started his new racing life with Toyota and a Cup winner.

Stay tuned

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