Jimmie Johnson hopes for Dover dominance in 500th start

Jimmie Johnson
Jimmie Johnson gets ready before practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup series auto race, Saturday, Oct. 3, 2015, at Dover International Speedway in Dover, Del. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

DOVER, Del. (AP) — Jimmie Johnson was still only a prospect in NASCAR’s developmental series when he tried to work up the nerve to talk to Jeff Gordon.

Johnson wanted to introduce himself to Gordon and ask for career advice, a chance to pick the brain of one of racing’s greats.

What he didn’t know during that fateful August 2000 meeting was Gordon already knew him. Not only did Gordon have advice, he had a pitch — Hendrick Motorsports was going to expand to four cars and Johnson was their man.

“From that moment on, my head spun around on my shoulders,” Johnson said.

Johnson’s been turning heads on the track ever since he landed a ride with racing powerhouse Hendrick Motorsports.

He started three times in 2001 and flashed some early championship potential with his first win just 10 races into 2002. With crew chief Chad Knaus calling the shots, Johnson has driven the No. 48 Chevrolet to six championships and 74 career wins, including a track-record 10 at Dover International Speedway.

As NASCAR champions Tony Stewart and Gordon ready for retirement, the 40-year-old Johnson shows no signs of following their path and calling it quits any time soon. He’ll make his 500th career start Sunday at Dover after recently signing a two-year extension with team owner Rick Hendrick.

“The racing God’s have smiled on me and this team,” Johnson said.

Johnson’s numbers long ago stamped him a surefire Hall of Famer. Among his achievements:

— 6. Johnson won championships in 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2013, putting him one shy of matching Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt for most on the career list.

— 74. Johnson’s 74 wins trail only Gordon (92) among active drivers. He’s eighth on the career list and has Earnhardt (76) in his sights. He’s won at least two races in every full season, won 10 in 2007 and has four this season.

— 1. Crew chief. Not counting some races missed because of suspension, Knaus has been a constant presence atop the pit box for Johnson since 2002. Johnson and Knaus were almost split by Hendrick following the 2005 season, but Hendrick made them hash out their differences over a snack of milk and cookies. They went on to win a record five consecutive titles.

— 10. Johnson has mastered the art of winning NASCAR’s crown jewel races. He won the Daytona 500 in 2006 and 2013; the Coca-Cola 600 in 2003, 2004, 2005 and 2014; and the Brickyard 400 in 2006, 2008, 2009 and 2012.

Johnson has at least one number he hasn’t thought much about, like his retirement age. Stewart and Gordon, who combined for seven championships, are both 44 and said the time was right to retire — Gordon after this season, Stewart after 2016.

Johnson has earned $150 million in purse money alone and sees no reason why today’s drivers will follow the lead of the ones from a generation before him and drive into their 50s.

“I have always been curious. Why, when, what tells you to stop,” he asked. “Mark (Martin) tried a half dozen times to retire and couldn’t walk away. I want to make sure I do it once and not keep coming back. What I am looking for is that moment. That moment that you say, ‘all right, it’s time’. When that shows up, then I will step down.”

Lowe’s, his primary sponsor, was on the car when Johnson ran three Cup races in 2001, and the nucleus of driver, sponsor and crew chief has been together since Johnson’s 2002 rookie season.

“I definitely feel like I have received the credit I deserve, the team has and it’s something that you earn as well,” he said. “I think the success we had and the races we won and the championships we won earned that respect.”

When the green flag drops Sunday, Johnson will become the 38th NASCAR driver with 500 career Cup starts. He’s fifth in the standings headed into the first Chase for the Sprint Cup championship cutoff race. The bottom four drivers out of the 16 in the field are cut and gone from the title picture. Matt Kenseth and Denny Hamlin won the first two Chase races to earn an automatic berth into the next round.

Johnson is a sure thing to make it on points, but with his track record at Dover, the odds are strong he’ll park again in victory lane.

“I still couldn’t have dreamed this big and have this much take place for us,” he said.

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