CONCORD – Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson are teammates and friends.
They’re close on the track, with Gordon leading Johnson by just nine points atop the Chase for the Nextel Cup standings going into Saturday night’s Bank of America 500. Johnson starts second, outside of Ryan Newman on the front row, with Gordon starting right behind him in Row 2, outside of Bobby Labonte.
They’ve been close off the track, too, ever since Gordon helped bring Johnson to Hendrick Motorsports. They may not hang out as much as they did a couple of years ago, though, since a few things have changed.
“With him now being a father, our social scenes have ventured in different directions,” Johnson said.
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Johnson and his wife, Chandra, still go to dinner with Gordon and his wife, Ingrid. “Our conversation is probably less on the work side and more on the personal side – how each other are doing and what's new and how many diapers has he changed this week and things like that.”
The Johnsons live in the SouthPark area of Charlotte, while Gordon, Ingrid and their new daughter, Ella, live uptown. But that doesn’t mean they’ve grown apart.
“The friendship is still there and it's as strong as it's ever been,” Johnson said. “I think as years go on, from my side I respect him and what he's accomplished more and more.”
But this year, perhaps, racing might test that friendship in its most exacting crucible, an intramural battle for a Nextel Cup title. And as strong as their friendship has been so far, neither Gordon nor Johnson doubts that such a battle doesn’t have its potential pitfalls.
"It definitely has its challenges,” said Gordon, who is seeking a fifth career title. “We're fierce competitors, but right now, everything is looking good.”
Johnson won his first championship last year, and while Gordon was in the Chase as well he didn’t quite get into position to challenge for the title.
“I was extremely thrilled for them,” Gordon said. “They'd been knocking on the door for so long. And we were out of it, so of course I wanted to see him win it.
“This year, as long as we're a factor, then I don't want anyone else to win it. I want us to win it. But I can tell you if we don't get it done at the end of the day, or maybe a couple of days later, I'm going to be extremely happy for him, not because we're teammates, but because we're friends.”
Gordon said Johnson’s success provides motivation for his team.
“Ever since Jimmie came on board at HMS, he has pushed me,” Gordon said. “I think it's made me a better driver. I like the friendly rivalry, the competition that we built. I think it has elevated all the teams at Hendrick having the two of us being as competitive against one another. I think it's brought us all to a new level.”
Johnson said he likes the rivalry, too.
“There's no doubt he wants to beat me. We saw that last week,” Johnson said. Indeed, Gordon passed Johnson on the final lap at Talladega to score his 80th career Cup victory. “He made a move and got it done. But it's not that he hates me and wants to pass me or I hate him and want to pass him.
“We're friends and we have respect for one another on and off the track, but it comes down to the end of the race. That's what we're out there for is to get the job done.”
Johnson said the only thing he could imagine putting a strain on the friendship would be for one driver to intentionally crash another.
He said he can’t imagine that happening, but earlier this year at Martinsville Gordon was rapping on Johnson’s rear bumper as they fought for the lead late in a race that Johnson eventually won.
“I don't want to say we won't crash,” Johnson said. “We’ll end up crashing here this weekend on accident and it will be all over the headlines. But it would take a lot to jeopardize the friendship and it's just not in either one of us to do that. It's just not who we are as racers on track.”
Gordon said he admires the drive for success displayed by Johnson and his crew chief, Chad Knaus. It probably looks familiar, in fact, since it’s the same kind of determination Gordon and crew chief Ray Evernham showed early in their pairing at Hendrick Motorsports.
“I’ve done so much more than I ever, ever expected to do in this sport, and I’ve gotten myself in a position where I don't have to continue,” Gordon said. “There's nothing that says I need to do this or I need to do that, or I haven't done this and so this is what's left. It's not like that for me.
“I think that's the only difference between me and Jimmie. He's still trying to establish himself as one of the all-time greats. ...He's at that point where I remember being at one time, where it's great to win one championship, but if you want to start separating yourself from the rest of the guys you've got to be a multiple champion.
"There is, to me, a huge difference from the guys that have won one championship, and none, and there is an even bigger difference from the guys who have won one and the guys who have won two. There is even a bigger difference between the guys who have won two and more than that. That list starts to become very short. And Jimmie wants to be on that list.
“I 'm just trying to be competitive and continue to get that great feeling of what it's like to win races and battle for championships and hope that we've got what it takes to do it. If I think we've got what it takes, it doesn't matter who it is, I'm going to be mad if we don't get it done.”