AVONDALE, Ariz. – Chandra Johnson, wife of Nextel Cup points leader Jimmie Johnson, is determined to help keep her husband’s stress level down as Johnson pursues his second straight championship in NASCAR’s top series.
So, for the week between races at Texas Motor Speedway and Phoenix International Raceway, she planned a mini-vacation for them in Mexico.
“We were just trying to get away and relax and have some fun,” Jimmie Johnson said. “We’re sitting in this beach bar having lunch. And in walks Ingrid and Jeff.”
That would be Jeff Gordon and his bride, of course, who were celebrating their first wedding anniversary and Ingrid’s birthday with a little jaunt to Mexico of their own. Gordon, Johnson’s teammate at Hendrick Motorsports, is also the driver with whom Johnson is battling for this year’s title. They’re separated by just 30 points entering Sunday’s Checker Auto Parts 500 at the 1-mile track just west of Phoenix.
“I knew they were in that area,” Gordon said. “We were (staying) about 20 minutes away and we just happened to see them. We pulled over and said hello.”
Ella Gordon, Jeff and Ingrid’s daughter, was due for a feeding so they couldn’t stay.
“It wasn’t like we sat down and reminisced about his win in Texas,” Gordon laughed. “We talked about having lunch the next day, but it didn’t work out.”
Johnson said the chance meeting while both drivers were trying to reset their minds for their championship battle over the year’s final two races was “quite funny.”
“We were like, ‘We’re all the way down here, and what are the chances of running into each other in this tiny beach bar?’” he said.
But, then again, odds-defying coincidence played a very big role in how Johnson came to drive for Hendrick Motorsports in the first place. With Johnson and Gordon locked in this championship showdown, it’s certainly a story worth revisiting.
It started in 2000 when Johnson was driving in the NASCAR Busch Series for Herzog Motorsports.
“I was at a Busch test at Darlington helping Ricky Hendrick out,” Gordon recalled. “I saw Jimmie and was impressed. Then I got a chance to race with Jimmie in the Busch series. I knew what kind of equipment I was driving and from the looks of his equipment it wasn’t as good and he was still driving the wheels off of it.”
Along about that same time, Johnson was facing some critical decisions about his driving career.
“I really needed someone to talk to who could wave a magic wand and fix my problems and make it seem clear and easy for me to make some decisions,” Johnson said.
He was thinking about leaving the Herzog team and about leaving Chevrolet, which had been a big part of Johnson’s early racing career. He knew that Gordon had started with Ford in the Busch Series before signing with Hendrick and Chevrolet, so he thought Gordon might have some insight into his choices.
“So I thought I could get some great advice from him to carry over to maybe move to a different team and if needed, to a different manufacturer based on the opportunities that were there,” Johnson said.
In August at Michigan International Speedway, Johnson approached Gordon to initiate that conversation. Funny you should ask, Gordon told Johnson that day, because as it turns out we might have an opening for you right here with the Hendrick team.
Gordon knew team owner Rick Hendrick was thinking about a fourth Cup team.
“I made a suggestion about Jimmie being a driver and bringing this fourth team at Hendrick a reality,” Gordon said. “Rick said, ‘Are you willing to put your money where your mouth is?’”
Gordon agreed, putting up some of his own compensation from Hendrick to get an ownership position in the new team. Within a few weeks, Johnson had a deal that led to him starting his Cup career with three races in 2001 before his rookie season in 2002.
“I was two-thirds of my way through my first Busch Series schedule and I'm signed up with Hendrick,” Johnson said. “I couldn't believe it. I just had no clue that was going to take place, no clue that they were looking for a fourth driver and they thought I was that prospect. It was wild times.”
You might think Gordon rues that, given that Johnson and his team right now provide the primary obstacle between him and a fifth Cup title. Not so.
“That’s what I love about this series and NASCAR,” Gordon said. “I walked around in the (open-wheel) garage area and nobody gave me the time of day. They all wanted money to help fund the program. Then I went to the Buck Baker Driving School and got a ride in NASCAR.
"Go figure. These car owners want talent and they’ll figure out how to find the money. That’s the exact opposite of what I see in other racing series.”