Johnson has the fuel to hold on for 1st win

Crew chief's gas-only call helps rookie triumph in NAPA 500 by .62 of second

April 29, 2002|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

FONTANA, Calif. - Crew chief Chad Knaus sat on pit road beside team owner Rick Hendrick, monitoring what competitors were doing on the final pit stop of the NAPA Auto Parts 500 with 17 laps to go. The team's spotter, high above the racetrack, told him the other Winston Cup cars were all taking two tires.

In his headset, Knaus could hear his own driver, rookie Jimmie Johnson, asking, "What are we going to do? What are we going to do?" as the Lowe's Chevrolet headed toward its pit box.

"Gas only," said Knaus, who then jumped from his seat, afraid he was going to be sick.

As it turned out, that call was the deciding factor yesterday as Johnson, 26, and a California native, went on to win the race by .620 of a second over second-year driver Kurt Busch.

"I never would have thought I'd get beat by gas only," said Busch, who had a car capable of winning all afternoon. "We never even considered gas only."

While Busch was lamenting his bad luck, Johnson was accepting an affectionate celebratory door bump from Jeff Gordon, a co-owner of his car, and then spun his tires and roared his engine so hard in a series of victory doughnuts that the motor blew up in Victory Lane.

"I've never seen so much oil under a car in Victory Lane," said Gordon, who shook his head in mock horror at such rookie shenanigans and then went on to voice his pride. "With the way they've been running, I'm not surprised he won. It just shows what can be done with good equipment, good chemistry and a talented driver."

The victory, before an estimated crowd of 100,000, marks the fourth straight year a Rookie of the Year contender has won at least once, and Johnson earned his first victory in the fourth-quickest time in the modern era. Kevin Harvick won in his third start, Ron Bouchard in his 11th and Dale Earnhardt Jr. in his 12th.

The precociousness of the win, coming as it did in only the 13th start of Johnson's Winston Cup career and with a first-year team, reminded many of the way Gordon started with Hendrick Motorsports.

Both drivers arrived on the scene without a sponsor or a team, but with a contract to drive for Hendrick because the owner saw their talent and wanted them in his stable.

"If I said Jimmie Johnson reminded me of me, it would be a compliment to me," said Gordon, who said he was mad about his 16th-place finish but delighted for his driver.

Johnson, 26, had been up front early and then faded after a pit stop. But by Lap 229, he had worked his way from eighth to second and was racing side-by-side with Busch for the lead when Harvick cut a tire and tried to move down the racetrack to enter pit road. Earnhardt Jr. slammed into him and spun hard into the wall, hitting the concrete surface at 134 mph, according to Fox TV monitors.

The yellow flag flew and Earnhardt was taken to the infield medical center, where he was found to have suffered a severely bruised ankle. It will be re-evaluated when he returns to North Carolina today. Meanwhile, the race leaders - Busch, Johnson, Ricky Rudd and Dale Jarrett - all ducked into the pits, setting the scene for Kanus' gas-only call.

"Jeff Gordon sort of started this," Ricky Rudd, 45, said after finishing third in a Ford. "He came in with very little experience and got into a Hendrick car with good equipment and experienced people and did very well. Now, you're seeing more of it.

"And I'm glad. For many years I was wondering what was gonna happen when all of us old guys go away. I don't think that's a question anymore. You've got guys like Kurt and Jimmie who drive the wheels off those race cars every week. Jimmie Johnson, I mean, the sport is in great shape."

It seemed it was yesterday, except perhaps in the Hendrick garage where the team was dealing with the blown engine that was supposed to be used again in The Winston all-star race in Charlotte in a couple weeks.

Johnson was chagrinned, but then a call came during the post-race interview from the chairman of the company sponsoring his car, telling him he'd be getting a new boat as a reward for winning.

The rookie perked up. Then Hendrick leaned over and said, "I get the boat, right?"

Johnson hesitated.

"The boat for the engine?" he asked.

Hendrick nodded. Johnson laughed. He didn't seem to care.

"Deep down, inside, it just feels really, really good to win," he said. "A rookie team with a rookie driver. We're going to be floating all the way to Richmond next weekend."

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