Worth the Wait for 48

The Great American Race had Jimmie Johnson's number--until Sunday, when he capped off a controversial week with a late charge that put him in Victory Lane
February 27, 2006

The golf cartputtered through the misty, unseasonably cold night, rolling across thefloodlit infield two hours after the checkered flag had signaled the end of theDaytona 500. Sitting in the back, holding a soon-to-be-drained bottle ofchampagne, Jimmie Johnson gently put his arm around his wife, Chandra. The twokissed--long and wet but sweet--and then JJ shared a confession with thethird-wheel passenger crammed in beside them. "Chandra woke me up earlythis morning and told me she had a good feeling about the race," saidJohnson. "I was like, man, it's too early for that!" ¶ "I couldn'thelp it," said a smiling Chandra. "I never have good feelings. But hey,it's 48 in the 48th. I just knew." ¶ Indeed, the 48th running of the GreatAmerican Race at the Daytona International Speedway belonged to the number 48Lowe's Chevrolet piloted by the 30-year-old Johnson, who has been NASCAR's mostconsistent driver over the last three years.

Until Sundaynight, however, he had lacked a signature win. For most of the 500, Johnsonbided his time, content to run in spots five through 15 while cautiouslyavoiding the accidents that took out top contenders Jeff Gordon, Carl Edwards,Jamie McMurray and Kurt Busch. Then, with 14 laps remaining on the 2.5-miletri-oval , JJ made his move: He blew past his Hendrick Motorsports teammateBrian Vickers on the front straightaway to seize the lead. Over the next 13laps Johnson unleashed the full power of his Hendrick engine while religiouslyhugging the low line. Heading into Turn 3 on the final lap of the race, RyanNewman bolted to the outside and tried to pass. But Casey Mears, who was inthird, didn't follow Newman to the outside, thus denying him the drafting helphe desperately needed. Instead, Mears stayed with Johnson in the low groove,and the longtime buddies drafted one-two across the finish line.

"Do I help myfriend who I've known since I was 12 years old, or do I go with Newman?"said Mears, who was a groomsman when the Johnsons were married 13 months ago."I help my friend. He deserves the win."

The victory didn'tcome without controversy, however. On Feb. 12, after Johnson had roared throughhis two Daytona 500 qualifying laps to place fifth on the grid in Thursday'squalifying race, NASCAR officials discovered that his rear window had beenraised sometime after the prequalifying inspection. NASCAR ruled that this gaveJohnson an aerodynamic advantage and was blatant cheating. As punishment,Johnson's run was scratched from the books. (He started Thursday from the backof the field but still qualified for the ninth position on Sunday.) Moreover,his crew chief, Chad Knaus, had his credential revoked, and he was booted offtrack property. (As of Monday night NASCAR had yet to announce the length ofhis suspension for this violation.)

A serial rulebender, Knaus has been cited seven times in the last five years for floutingthe rules. The 34-year-old Knaus blurs the line between innovative setups andoutright cheating more than any other crew chief in the Cup garage, and severaldrivers strongly believe Knaus's most recent breach of the rules taintedJohnson's victory. "Three out of Jimmie's last four wins have hadconnections with the cars' being illegal," Newman said after the race."It's not necessarily good for the sport."

Though Knaus wasback home in Charlotte, he still exerted a powerful influence over the Lowe'steam on Sunday. Using e-mail and his cellphone, Knaus was in frequent contactwith Darian Grubb, the team's lead engineer, who replaced Knaus atop the pitbox for the 500. On race morning Knaus even faxed Johnson some remarks hewanted to share with his crew in the team hauler before the green flag dropped."Chad wanted me to stress that we all need to be patient and just do ourjobs," says Johnson. "That's a theme for me this year. Maybe I wasn'tpatient enough in the past, and that's led to some of my problems. But tonightI was really, really relaxed. I let the race come to me. The championship is along ways away, but we've got some great momentum going."

Four days beforethe engines were fired for the start of the 500, owner Rick Hendrick, afive-time Cup championship winner, was strolling though the Daytona garage whenhe bumped into an acquaintance. Asked how many of his four Cup drivers(Johnson, Gordon, Vickers and Kyle Busch) would qualify for the season-endingChase for the Championship, Hendrick's eyes lit up. He grabbed his questioner'sarm and said, "I don't want to get ahead of myself, but this is as strongas my entire race team has ever been. From top to bottom, we've got talenteverywhere. If all goes well, we can get all four of the cars into theChase."

Though it willtake 7 1/2 months for him to make good on that claim--only one of his cars,Johnson's, advanced to the 10-car Chase in '05--no team in NASCAR has beenbetter than Hendrick Motorsports on the restrictor-plate tracks of Daytona andTalladega over the last two years. Hendrick's fleet of Chevys has won the lasttwo Daytona 500s and five of the last eight races in which those thin strips ofaluminum are inserted into the carburetors to restrict air flow and limit topspeeds. Johnson was involved in wrecks in two of the four plate races in 2005,but the way he deftly--and calmly--avoided the carnage on Sunday bodes well forhis championship hopes this season. Johnson finished second in the pointstandings in 2003 and '04, and fifth in '05, and over that span he's won moreraces (16) than any other driver, but he's fallen short of the title for threereasons: bad luck (he was knocked out of the title hunt last year by a flattire in the final race, at Miami), bad timing (he finished 30th or worse eighttimes in '04, and three of them came in Chase races) and occasional bouts ofbad driving (he ran into the back of Elliott Sadler last October at Talladegaand triggered a massive wreck, causing JJ to lose his point lead in theChase).

"I've beentrying to learn from my mistakes," Johnson said on Sunday. "Today Ireally drove a much different plate race than I've driven before."

The same could besaid of Dale Earnhardt Jr., the 2004 winner of the 500, who finished eighth onSunday. Floundering in the middle of the pack late in this year's race, heradioed his crew chief, Tony Eury Jr., to complain that his engine wasn'tstrong enough to make a late charge. This was a common lament from Little Elast season, when he finished a career-worst 19th in the point standings. ButEury, who is also Earnhardt's cousin, was adamant that Junior's car was goodenough to finish in the top 10. "Let's go to the house," Eury Jr.yelled over the radio. "I'm looking forward to the rest of the seasonnow."

Why was Eury soupbeat? For starters, Junior led for more laps (33) than anyone else. In fact,he paced more laps on Sunday then he did during the entire 26-race regularseason of 2005, when he led for just 17. Eury also likes Little E's new"serious approach" to racing. "It's always taken Dale Jr. a littlelonger to mature than most people," said Eury, raising his voice above therevving engines in the Daytona garage two days before the race. "But Ithink he's finally arrived and is fully dedicated to racing. He was in the shopmore than ever this off-season. He's more professional in how he talks to me.And if we can keep up our communication, I'd be really surprised if we didn'tfinish at least in the top three in the standings this year."

That's whereJohnson plans to be as well. He was a NASCAR fan growing up in El Cajon,Calif., a working-class suburb of San Diego, but unlike many of the racers hecompeted against on Sunday, Johnson didn't have a family connection to thesport. His father, Gary, was a heavy-machine operator, and his mom, Cathy,drove a school bus. But Johnson did possess one characteristic that's criticalfor any driver: tenacity. At age 14 he began hanging out with his dad atoff-road races, and within a year he was networking with buggy owners andasking for the opportunity to drive their vehicles. He quickly made a name forhimself, and in the winter of 1996, at age 21, he went to Charlotte and startedpounding on the doors of anyone who owned a professional race team. "Iwould go to places where I knew crew guys ate lunch," recalls Johnson,"and I'd sit there all through lunch just trying to meet people."

Johnson eventuallylanded a ride in the short-track American Speed Association series in '97, thenmoved up to the Busch series full time in 2000. In '02 Hendrick hired him todrive his number 48 Cup car. Though Johnson has been successful at every levelof racing, that doesn't mean his father ever expected his boy to win the SuperBowl of stock cars. As Gary watched the final lap of the race from his livingroom in Charlotte, tears welled in his eyes. When he saw Jimmie pull intoVictory Lane, Gary dialed his son's cellphone. Eventually it was handed to thenewly minted Daytona 500 winner.

"Forty-eightcar in the 48th Daytona 500!" Gary said into the phone, his voice cracking."Forty-eight in the 48th!"

Just anotherby-the-numbers victory, on a Sunday that Jimmie Johnson will never forget.

"It's always taken Dale Jr. A LITTLE LONGER TOMATURE than most people," Eury says. "But I think he's finally arrived.I'd be really surprised if we didn't finish in at least the top three."

PHOTOPhotograph by Bob RosatoRAINING CHAMP Controversy and confetti came in torrents for Johnson, one of the few big names to survive Daytona's wet, accident-strewn tri-oval. PHOTOFRED VUICHSee caption above. PHOTOFRED VUICHGRAY AREA JJ kept his 48 car (seen here in a track-level view of Turn 4) out of trouble, but as he hoisted the 500 hardware, his fellow drivers were still howling about cheating by his camp. PHOTOBOB ROSATO (INSET)See caption above. PHOTODOUG MURRAY/REUTERSMASSIVE AGGRESSIVE Kenseth (in car 17) called Stewart's bump dirty; Stewart (right) called it payback. PHOTOBOB ROSATO (INSET)See caption above. PHOTOBOB ROSATO (EARNHARDT)IS HE BACK? Junior showed signs of a rebound with a strong eighth-place finish. PHOTOFRED VUICH See caption above.