By David Morgan, NASCAR Editor
These days, Jimmie Johnson is known as a seven-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion driving for Hendrick Motorsports, but back in the early 2000’s, Johnson was a relative unknown driving for Herzog Motorsports trying to make a name for himself.
That all changed at Chicagoland Speedway in July 2001 with the running of the Hills Brothers Coffee 300.
Prior to the 2001 season, Johnson was best known for his crash at Watkins Glen in 2000 after he lost his brakes heading into Turn 1, which sent Johnson’s No. 92 car screaming through the gravel trap and into the Styrofoam protecting the Armco barrier in that turn. The impact with the barrier sent Styrofoam flying everywhere and after a few tense seconds, Johnson climbed from the car and thrust his arms in the air to show everyone that he was alright.
As the Busch Series rolled into Chicago for the inaugural race at the track in July 2001, Kevin Harvick and Greg Biffle were the talk of the series as the two were waging war for the points lead. Little did anyone know that Johnson and his No. 92 team would be the talk of the series after the checkered flag flew.
Ryan Newman led the race from the pole as he also was seeking his first Busch Series win and looked to be the man to beat for the majority of the day, leading 84 laps throughout the day. However, pit road strategy would come into play during a caution on lap 157 with Johnson and several others electing to take two tires to gain track position over Newman, who took four tires during that round of pit stops and was mired back in the pack.
With the track position, Johnson pulled out to a sizable lead over Newman, but as the laps wore on, Newman’s four tires began to work to his advantage and he closed in on Johnson lap after lap. With 15 laps remaining, Newman was knocking on the door and was in the catbird seat as he looked for his opportunity to get by Johnson to back to the lead.
As Newman continued to stalk Johnson for the lead, the two came upon the lapped car of Mike McLaughlin through Turn 3 and 4 with six laps to go. Johnson got past McLaughlin’s No. 18 car with ease, but Newman was not so lucky. Newman timed his pass of McLaughlin just a tad too late, with the left front of Newman’s car impacting the right rear of McLaughlin’s car. The impact caused severe damage to Newman’s car and cut his tire, forcing him to pit road.
With Newman out of the picture, Johnson had smooth sailing over the final five laps as he hit his marks and made it to the finish with a nearly five second advantage over Mike Skinner in second place. Rounding out the top-five was Jeff Burton, Joe Nemechek, and Jason Keller.
“The win means a lot, especially being so close to Wisconsin. I spent a lot of time in the Wisconsin area, racing off-road trucks. To win here and just to win in general, the win at this level,” Johnson said. “You got Cup drivers, Jeff Green, all these different people and to have a car as competitive as theirs with the limited experience that our team has (owners, crew chief and driver are in second year) for all of it to come together and run as well as we did today, I can say it right now, but it really hasn’t sunk in. I can’t believe we did it.”
The win for Johnson was his first and only win in the Busch Series, now known as the Xfinity Series, and he would move into his ride in the No. 48 with Hendrick Motorsports later in the 2001 season.
As they say, the rest is history.