Jimmie Johnson recalls fond Auto Club memories, ‘big exhale’ after first Cup victory

Shirley Beal
Jimmie Johnson recalls fond Auto Club memories, ‘big exhale’ after first Cup victory

Jimmie Johnson experienced the excellent fortune and expertise to score 83 victories in the course of the study course of his NASCAR Cup Collection career. He even now carries deeply fond recollections about his 1st — which came just about 21 decades ago in his house point out — and the unforgettable celebration that arrived with it.

The 7-time champion designed his first entry into the Cup Series acquire column on April 28, 2002, at what was then called California Speedway. The 2-mile Fontana track — now known as Auto Club Speedway — is the website of this Sunday’s Pala Casino 400 (3:30 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio), the second race of the Cup Sequence season.

Linked: Vehicle Club weekend routine | Most current Auto Club odds

The victory was not just a homecoming affair, but the minute also assisted validate Hendrick Motorsports’ and group co-proprietor Jeff Gordon’s decision to stamp Johnson as a climbing star in its new No. 48 Chevrolet trip just after a moderately effective Xfinity Collection tenure. For Johnson, it furnished him with a perception of protection that would very last for two additional decades.

“So to cross the complete line and earn, the significant exhale that I had when I eventually crossed the finish line was really extra about realizing I’d be used,” Johnson claimed as part of a sequence of NASCAR 75th anniversary interviews. “Jeff just gained the championship the year in advance of in this gear that I was driving that working day, and the team, they by no means place that stress on me, but in my coronary heart, I felt like if I did not gain, I wasn’t likely to be again in ’03. So to gain 10 races into my rookie time, 13th race ever, that was a enormous moment, and I felt like I’d maintain the occupation for a few years.”

Johnson had previously started robust in his rookie marketing campaign in advance of Car Club arrived on the 2002 program. He landed his 1st pole placement in the season-opening Daytona 500 and adopted that efficiency with another pole (at Talladega) and 6 best-10 finishes in the very first nine races.

Heading property to Southern California arrived at the proper time.

Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson celebrate in Victory Lane at Auto Club Speedway in 2002

Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson celebrate in Victory Lane at Car Club Speedway in 2002

“Of system, I’m back again residence, very first time there as a Cup driver, friends, family members in the stands,” Johnson recalled. “I imagine we stopped by means of San Diego, see some folks and hit my favorite taco stand before I went up to the race. Just a great verify-in at property. I hadn’t been there in a while, so to have all that energy and exhilaration to go to the race monitor, to carry out and run well all race very long.”

Even with his early season momentum and that energetic vibe, Johnson recollects that his No. 48 Monte Carlo was not the speediest motor vehicle that day. He led 62 of the 250 laps, but the top entrance-runner was Kurt Busch, who led a race-substantial 102 in the Jack Roush-owned No. 97 Ford.

The result boiled down to a daring late-race approach get in touch with by young crew chief Chad Knaus, who opted for fuel only though Busch’s team transformed two tires in the remaining pit cease.

“I’ll under no circumstances forget currently being off the front of the field and primary that matter,” Johnson claimed, “knowing that Kurt was likely to be there at some place and somewhere in the vicinity of the conclude of that stint, I experienced a sense of understanding that, that is as close as he was likely to get. …

“I had observe place, the keep track of was paved not long prior to that. So the groove was kind of transferring close to in some diverse spots, and I remember obtaining a wonderful lane in the middle of the monitor … and just making an attempt to be positive I did not mess it up, it was 5 or 10 to go, I truly felt like it was my race to acquire. And having that strain of your to start with earn, your property observe and not toss it absent was all using on my shoulders.”

Enjoy: Complete-race replay: Car Club, 2002

Just after primary the closing 14 eco-friendly-flag laps to the finish, that large exhale arrived with a burnout and a to start with pay a visit to to Victory Lane. The celebration extended past the “boom, confetti” times and submit-race press convention. At Gordon’s recommendation, a road vacation was concerned.

“When I seem again, this was that window of time in which individually there was not a ton going on for Jeff or myself,” explained Johnson, who was 26 at the time. “We weren’t married, we did not have youngsters. He seemed at me and claimed, ‘We really should in all probability go to Los Angeles tonight.’ I reported, ‘That’s a great strategy.’

“So he had rented a motor house to use for the weekend and talked the motor driver into filling the bus up complete of my staff and some several close friends we had in the space. And the moment my media obligations concluded up, west we went, ran up the Interstate 10 to Los Angeles and we had been certainly out of position, but we experienced a big time. It was a ton of entertaining.”

It also served forge what is been a extended-lasting friendship involving the two. Gordon was a critical trader in Johnson’s workforce and his occupation at Hendrick Motorsports, where by the four-time Cup champ is now the organization’s vice chairman. Their bond, nevertheless, reached outside of the formation of their business partnership.

“So there is just this ridiculous conversion of own and skilled existence coming together, and when I glimpse back again on it, just how a great deal pleasurable we experienced,” Johnson stated. “I indicate, lifetime was so very simple and so primary — cost-free young ones just traveling the state, driving race cars on the weekends and heading off to neat locations just after that. So I glimpse back again and consider that was absolutely a particular interval of time individually and skillfully.”

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