These days Jimmie Johnson is considered one of the greatest of all-time with seven championships and 80 wins to his name, but there was a time when the California native was a fresh faced rookie just looking to make a mark on the sport.
As the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series heads to Auto Club Speedway this weekend, we’ll take a look back at the 2002 NAPA 500 in this week’s “Throwback Thursday Theater”, where Johnson scored the first of his many wins.
Johnson signed with Hendrick Motorsports in the fall of 2000 after his first full-time season with Herzog Motorsports, in which he didn’t exactly set the world on fire. Nonetheless, Jeff Gordon and Rick Hendrick saw something in Johnson and brought him on board with Chad Knaus as crew chief for their rookie campaign in 2002.
Heading into the 10th race of the season at his home track, Johnson had come out of the gate strong to start the 2002 season, scoring six top-10 finishes and two poles in the nine races prior, placing him sixth in points as the series rolled into Fontana.
Rookie Ryan Newman and Kurt Busch led the field to the green from the front row, while Johnson also started near the front, rolling off fourth for the 250 lap event. Though Newman got the jump on the start, it was Busch who would lead the first lap in a drag race to the line. Newman would get back by Busch on lap two to reassume the lead, albeit for only three laps before getting passed by Dale Jarrett on lap five.
Though Jarrett was the first to lead double digit laps in the race, it was Johnson who came to the forefront at lap 22 to show that he would be a force to be reckoned with as the race played out and that is exactly what happened.
Johnson and Busch would be the dominant forces throughout the remainder of the race, with Jarrett and Stacy Compton also leading laps into the double digits.
As the two rookies were battling for the lead with 22 laps to go, a hard crash coming off of Turn 4 involving Dale Earnhardt, Jr and Kevin Harvick would bunch the field back up for the final stint of the race.
Harvick had a flat tire and was attempting to get to pit road, but turned down into the right-rear of Earnhardt’s car, sending him spinning toward the outside wall that resulted in a massive impact on the driver’s side of his car. Though Earnhardt and Harvick were able to get out of their cars under their own power, Earnhardt was visibly in pain after the crash and it was later revealed that he had suffered a concussion in the wreck, but hid that fact for another five months before the news broke prior to the Kansas race in September 2002.
While under caution to get the track cleared, Johnson and Busch led the field down pit road for the final time for service. Johnson elected to take fuel only, while Busch took two tires and Bill Elliott stayed out to take over the race lead.
Elliott’s lead would be short lived, as Johnson was able to easily power around him off of Turn 2 when the race went back to green with 14 laps remaining to take over the lead once again. Though Johnson was back in command of the race, Ricky Rudd had moved to second with two fresh tires and had his sights set on overtaking the rookie and the win.
As Johnson, Rudd, and Busch all were fighting for the lead, Steve Grissom had right-front tire issues with five laps to go that put down some significant debris on track, but the debris was out of the racing groove and NASCAR allowed the race to stay under green to the conclusion.
Busch was able to get past Rudd for second place with three laps to go, but Johnson was just too strong over the final circuits as he streaked across the finish line for his first career win in his 13th career start. Busch finished second, having led 102 laps on the day to Johnson’s 62, while Rudd finished third, with Elliott in fourth, and Mark Martin rounding out the top-five.
In victory lane, Johnson emerged from his car and did a crowd dive into the waiting arms of his celebrating crew.
“This is unbelievable,” said Johnson. “I know my dad is sitting at home going crazy with my mom. Wish you were here, Dad. Figures you don’t come to the race and we win the dang thing. This was awesome to do in California in front of my hometown. I just can’t say enough for Lowe’s, all the employee owners, Hendrick Motorsports, Jeff Gordon and Rick Hendrick for believing in me. These guys back here believe in me.”
“This is so cool. It’s going to sink in as the days come. Right now, it’s just cool, it’s just really cool. There’s going to be a heck of a good time tonight, I can tell you that much.”
After finishing 16th, Jeff Gordon, who partially owns Johnson’s No. 48 team, made his way to victory lane to join in the celebration.
“I guess we hired the right guy!” said a jubilant Gordon. “Man, I’m tickled to death. I couldn’t be more proud of this guy right here, what a great team. I saw how good he was today and when the right chemistry is put together, it doesn’t matter how many races you’ve got under your belt. Great team, great resources at Hendrick Motorsports, but these two guys have been clicking all year long and I couldn’t be more proud of them.”