Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson have always had a unique dynamic, so says the four-time NASCAR Cup Series champion.
One could look at how Johnson got the ride at Hendrick Motorsports. In 2001, he approached Gordon asking for advice before a race, which turned into Gordon wanting to hire Johnson for the fourth HMS team.
Or, look at how the two became good friends through the years, and just as fierce competitors. Gordon is also one of the few drivers who will be able to say that he competed against Johnson in basically the same equipment.
“And I can tell you that I’ve never raced with anybody better, and that’s why I respect him so much,” said Gordon.
Johnson went from a mediocre Xfinity Series career to having one of the greatest ever in the Cup Series. Now a seven-time champion, he will retire from full-time competition at the end of the 2020 season. After Johnson informed team owner Rick Hendrick of his intentions, he called Gordon.
“The way he’s done it — to do it with class, to do it with style, to do it his own way — I appreciate that,” added Gordon. “To me, one legacy that he will leave at least on myself, when I came into the sport, I looked up to other drivers and either tried to emulate them or tried to beat them and hopefully forced them to step their game up. I hope that I did that for others, but I can tell you 100 percent Jimmie did that for me, and others I’m sure.
“I thought that I had things figured out, then Jimmie Johnson comes along and starts beating me on a regular basis, and it forced me to look within myself and go, ‘OK, what am I not doing? What more can I do? What can I do with setups and cars and team? Fitness?’ He elevated my game, and I think that to me is when a driver’s performance on track leaves a legacy behind to others.”
Gordon has four championships of his own, but they all came before Johnson entered the series. Winning his fourth title in ’01 gave way to Johnson becoming a series regular in ’02.
“And then there’s that,” Gordon laughs.
“Honestly, I look back, and something that means a lot to me as a driver was that I kind of stopped Dale Earnhardt from winning his eighth championship. And maybe he would have won it had we not lost him, but I can tell you 1995, had we not been there he would have won it. And you sort of set these benchmarks of challenges — I’m pretty sure Jimmie Johnson didn’t want to see me win another championship, and he was the one that was in the way of making it happen. And he stopped it from happening for several others from getting maybe their first or second.”
Whether it’s Gordon or any other driver, an argument could be made that Johnson’s dominance through the 2000s took away the opportunity for someone else to win a championship. Gordon came close, most notably in ’07, but ultimately lost to Johnson, who won four straight races during the playoffs.
Gordon credits Johnson for forcing himself and probably other drivers to step up their commitment level. Whether it was on track or with physical fitness, Johnson works “really, really” hard, related an admiring Gordon.
When Gordon retired following the ’15 season, he did so with 93 wins. Johnson will have 36 points-paying races next year to try and add to his 83 career victories.
“It’s one of the most unique relationships that I’ve ever had in the sport,” said Gordon. “But somewhere along the way, the friendship always outweighed (everything else) — whether I was getting my butt kicked by him or him beating us for a championship. So that’s been really cool the last couple years and certainly the last couple weeks — he and I reminiscing about some of those things.”