Clutching a bottle of water in his left hand, Jimmie Johnson climbed on top of his team's nine-foot-tall pit box during practice runs at Bristol Motor Speedway, his eyes bright with curiosity. It was Aug. 27, the afternoon before the Sharpie 500 at the eastern Tennessee track, and Johnson's number 48 Chevrolet hadn't been handling well. While his crew made adjustments to the car in the pit lane, Johnson turned in circles as he intently watched teammate Jeff Gordon's red-and-blue Chevy buzz around the .533-mile oval. The scene was unremarkable except that it provided a glimpse into why Johnson and Gordon have become the dominant drivers in NASCAR this year--and why they will be the racers to beat when the inaugural 10race Chase for the Nextel Cup begins on Sunday with the Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire International Speedway.
For six minutes on top of the pit box Johnson analyzed the line that Gordon was taking through the high-banked turns, noting where his car got loose. Because the two Hendrick Motorsports teammates have similar driving styles and use nearly identical setups, it was as if Gordon were giving Johnson a private tutorial on where--and how--to attack the track.
After the practice, in which Gordon had the fastest time and Johnson ranked 22nd, the two drivers huddled for nine minutes in Gordon's pit stall, oblivious to the hubbub about them, animatedly comparing steering capability and throttle and brake efficiency. The information that Gordon relayed to Johnson proved to be golden, because even though Johnson's Chevy wasn't as powerful as it had been in recent weeks, his lap times would keep dropping. Later that day Johnson turned in the 11th-best qualifying time (Gordon won the pole) and in the second practice he was seventh fastest.
Johnson continued to move up through the field in the race itself, finishing third. (After leading 60 laps Gordon was penalized for a yellow-flag infraction and finished 14th.) Johnson's performance didn't make headlines, but its significance was clear, because piloting a less-than-perfect car to a top three finish is how championships are won in NASCAR.
"Jeff and I share everything," says Johnson, 29. "We're constantly talking. Even when we're not talking, it's as if he's communicating with me when I watch him drive. I know that if he's doing something that works for him, it will probably work for me, too."
"Jimmie and I don't have any secrets," says Gordon, 33. "I've been in this sport a long time, and I've never been closer to anyone."
That airtight partnership is one of the reasons that SI is picking Johnson and Gordon to finish one-two (sidebar, facing page) in the Chase for the Cup. Under the new championship format--which NASCAR introduced in the off-season after ultraconsistent Matt Kenseth took the 2003 title in a yawner--the top 10 drivers in the standings after the race last Saturday night in Richmond have had their point totals adjusted so that only five points separate each from the driver behind him. For example, before the Richmond race Johnson was the season points leader, with a 424-point edge over 10th-place Mark Martin; heading to New Hampshire, Gordon is back atop the standings, with his lead over 10th-place Ryan Newman reset to 45 points, a difference that can be surmounted in a single race. Johnson is second in the standings, so he will start the Chase five points behind Gordon. (Only the top 10 drivers are eligible for the championship, but each of the 10 remaining races will have the full field of 43 cars. The season finale will be run in Homestead, Fla., on Nov. 21.)
"Jeff and Jimmie are definitely the guys to beat," says veteran Jimmy Spencer, who did not qualify for the Chase. "They're perfect teammates. They help each other by exchanging ideas and information. And it's not easy to be a good teammate. Trust me, over the years there have been a lot of teammates who couldn't stand each other."
Indeed, there's a long history in NASCAR of teammates feuding and even bloodying each other. On May 22, during the Nextel All-Star Challenge in Charlotte, Roush Racing teammates Kurt Busch and Greg Biffle nearly came to blows after Busch bumped the back of Biffle's car, sending Biffle into the wall and triggering a 13-car crash. "Kurt Busch has got his head up ... whatever, you know," Biffle fumed after he got out of his wrecked Ford. He later declared that either he or Busch would have to leave the Roush team. The two drivers have since made up, but their tiff underscored how fragile the teammate relationship can be.
The Johnson-Gordon friendship, however, appears so solid on-track and off that you wonder if their family trees aren't intertwined. Over the past 10 months they've gone scuba diving in the Bahamas together, traveled to Spain with their girlfriends to take in an F/1 race and gone clubbing in New York City. The two drivers first met in 1998, at a test session at Darlington Speedway. At the time, Gordon had already won two Winston Cup titles; Johnson was racing in the Busch Series. After watching Johnson blast around the track, nearly crashing into the wall between Turns 1 and 2 as he drove with a foot full of lead, Gordon asked a friend who the daredevil was. "It's some kid named Jimmie Johnson," the friend said. Impressed, Gordon approached Johnson after the test run and told him, "Man, that was some awesome driving. Keep at it."
But two years later Johnson was still toiling in the Busch Series. At 24 he was at a crossroads in his career: He had lost his sponsor, Alltel, and was worried that he would soon have to return to his home in El Cajon, Calif., to start a new life. Seeking advice, he knocked on the door of Gordon's hauler at Michigan International Speedway. "I don't know if you remember me," Johnson said when Gordon answered, "but my name is Jimmie Johnson, and...."
"I know who you are," Gordon said. "And you're not going to believe this, but we're interested in starting a new team in 2002, and we want you to possibly drive the car."
It turned out that Gordon had kept a close eye on Johnson ever since that first meeting at Darlington and had liked Johnson's driving, even though he had won only one race in three years on the Busch circuit. "I don't want to knock his Busch car, but I knew he'd be better when he got stuff he could drive straight," Gordon says. "Plus I raced him [in a 2000 Busch race] in Michigan, and he beat me."
After Gordon and Hendrick Motorsports owner Rick Hendrick became co-owners of a new team and signed Johnson as the driver in September 2000, they still had to find a primary sponsor. A year later, the CEO of Lowe's, Bob Tillman, sat in a conference room at Hendrick headquarters in Charlotte and listened to a pitch from Gordon, Hendrick and Johnson. Midway through the meeting Tillman stopped, looked squarely into Johnson's eyes and forcefully asked, "You're going to be a rookie with no Cup experience. Can you win?"
Johnson, without blinking, replied, "Absolutely. I'm going to win. Absolutely."
Days later Tillman offered the team a multimillion-dollar sponsorship. Then Johnson, improbably, backed up his bold prediction. In 2002 he blazed to one of the most distinguished rookie seasons in NASCAR history, winning three times and finishing fifth in points. In 21/2 years of Cup racing Johnson has made 10 trips to Victory Lane, putting him one up on his owner-teammate. (Gordon won nine times in his first three full seasons.)
"This is how I hoped everything would go when we started a new team and hired Jimmie," says Gordon. "It's such a huge advantage to have someone like Jimmie who I can run ideas by. We're both having a great year, and hopefully we'll stay one-two the entire way."
Says Gordon's crew chief, Robbie Loomis, "I think one of the reasons our teams are so strong is that my briefcase is open to [Johnson's] team. My office is right next to Chad's [Chad Knaus, Johnson's crew chief], and we're constantly comparing notes."
Over the next 10 races expect Johnson and Gordon to map out race and pit strategies together, block for each other (not blatantly, because it's against the rules) and draft together on Oct. 3 at Talladega, the only superspeedway stop in the Chase. When one driver falters, Loomis and Knaus will feverishly e-mail one another from pit to pit midrace to make the adjustments that will get the struggling car back up to speed. Perhaps most significant, Johnson and Gordon each will have a ton of horsepower under his right foot. The Hendrick engines have consistently generated more juice than those of any other team this season. If Johnson and Gordon are running on or close to the lead, they'll be less likely to get caught up in a wreck and suffer, say, a 30th-place finish that could end a driver's title chances.
That leaves one question: Which teammate has the edge? The pick here is Johnson. Despite an August slump--he failed to finish three straight races--Johnson has the blend of skill, savvy and guts that every Cup champion possesses. Plus, he has one asset no other driver has: a four-time champion as a teammate and sounding board.
"I think it will come down to Jeff and me," says Johnson. "And if it does, in that last race, we'll still be teammates, but we won't act like it on the track. At that point anything goes."
Buckle up. ‚ñ†
And Then There Were 10
The Chase for the Nextel Cup Championship ends in Homestead, Fla., on Nov. 21. Here's how SI predicts the 10 contenders will finish.
1. JIMMIE JOHNSON (No. 2 at start of the Chase)
During one stretch this season he had 10 top five finishes in 11 races. Expect Johnson to go on a similar tear starting this weekend in New Hampshire, where in 2003 he won both Cup races.
2. JEFF GORDON (1)
He has won five races this year--more than any other driver--and his total of 11 top five finishes puts him behind only Johnson (15) and Dale Earnhardt Jr. (12) in that category, but engine problems have plagued the four-time champ.
3. MARK MARTIN (8)
At 45, the oldest of the 10 drivers is peaking at the right time. Martin, who has been the points runner-up four times in his 22-year Cup career, has four top-three finishes in the last seven races.
4. MATT KENSETH (5)
The 2003 champion is a popular pick to win it all among the rank-and-file gearheads in the garage, but Kenseth's qualifying woes (average starting spot this year: 23rd) will keep him from repeating.
5. ELLIOTT SADLER (6)
With two wins so far, he's the biggest surprise of 2004. He's also a dark horse to win the championship for one reason: Sadler has completed all but 43 laps this season, which means he's an ace at avoiding trouble.
6. DALE EARNHARDT JR. (3)
Since suffering second-degree burns in a wreck during an American LeMans Series practice on July 18, Little E's performance has been too inconsistent (one win; five finishes of 21st or worse) to allow him to challenge for the title.
7. TONY STEWART (4)
Having finished no higher than 18th in the last three races, he's slumping at the wrong time. Still, if the 2002 champ can keep his notorious temper in check, he has a shot because of his prodigious talent.
8. KURT BUSCH (7)
Here's the wild card among the 10. He's capable of putting together a run of top five finishes but is also accident-prone. If Busch avoids crashing out of races, the 26-year-old could be the surprise of the Chase.
9. RYAN NEWMAN (10)
After winning a series-high eight races last year, he has had a disappointing season (one win; average finish 16th). Because he's been hit-or-miss with his setups (mostly miss), Newman is unlikely to stage a title run.
10. JEREMY MAYFIELD (9)
Last Saturday at Richmond, he won his first Cup race since June 2000 to make the Chase. Mayfield, 35, has only four top-five finishes this year--tied with Bush for the fewest of any driver in this group. Don't expect him to be a factor.
Tillman looked squarely into Johnson's eyes and forcefully asked, "CAN YOU WIN?" Johnson, without blinking, replied, "Absolutely."
Photograph by Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images
Four-time Cup champ Gordon (right) and protégé Johnson share information generously, helping both make big noise in the points race.
Gordon (24) has won five races this season and is first in points; Johnson, with four victories, is second.
THREE COLOR PHOTOS
GETTY IMAGES (JOHNSON, SADLER, MAYFIELD)
TWO COLOR PHOTOS
WORTH CANOY/ICON SMI (GORDON, KENSETH)
AL MESSERSCHMIDT/WIREIMAGE.COM (MARTIN)
DAVID GRIFFIN/ICON SMI (EARNHARDT)
DAVID VAUGHN/WIREIMAGE.COM (STEWART)
BOB LEVERONE/SPORTING NEWS/ICON SMI (BUSCH)
DAVID DUROCHIK/SPORTPICS (NEWMAN)