Friendship fuels competitive fire

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HOMESTEAD, Fla. --- Rusty Wallace has a lot of respect for Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson. But this whole friendship thing between the title contending teammates baffles the retired NASCAR champion.

Teammates Jimmie Johnson (left) and Jeff Gordon pose with the NASCAR Nextel Cup trophy during a news conference Thursday. Johnson goes into Sunday's race leading in points.  Associated Press
Associated Press
Teammates Jimmie Johnson (left) and Jeff Gordon pose with the NASCAR Nextel Cup trophy during a news conference Thursday. Johnson goes into Sunday's race leading in points.

"I think that's one thing to how they respect each other, but I personally think that this year's been pretty darn trying to both of them," Wallace said. "How do you treat your teammate nice and with respect, because you're wanting to kick his butt?"

Somehow, four-time champion Gordon and reigning champion Johnson have been able to draw the line between their on-track rivalry and the friendship that helped put Johnson in an elite ride at powerful Hendrick Motorsports.

It was Gordon, already established as a top star in NASCAR, who raised Johnson's name with Rick Hendrick when the car owner became serious about starting a fourth Cup team in 2001.

"The reason why I suggested Jimmie to Rick Hendrick is because he impressed me before he was ever in a Cup," explained Gordon, the co-owner of Johnson's No. 48 car with Hendrick. "I really thought if you put him in the kind of quality equipment I'd been in for all the years that he could have the same type of success that I'd had.

"It's pretty awesome to see it come from way back then to where it is now and see how he's matured."

The other half of this mutual admiration society said, "I've always, throughout my career, had someone to look up to and to learn from. At Hendrick Motorsports, Jeff is certainly that for me, and I feel that it's been good for me ... for the last five years, I've been studying Jeff and his driving styles at different tracks and, obviously, you can learn a lot from that."

The culmination of all this happy talk will come Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway when one of the two buddies will walk away with the Nextel Cup.

JOHNSON GOES INTO the season-ending Ford 400 with a big edge -- four consecutive wins and an 86-point lead over Gordon. If Johnson finishes 18th or better, he wins the title, regardless. If Gordon finishes 15th or worse, he cedes the trophy.

The two met with the media Thursday as NASCAR tried to build a little more hype for a finish that might not be as scintillating as it would like. Johnson pointed out that the friends drove to the news conference together, chatting about how well they get along despite the obvious pressures each faces.

"We are human," Johnson said. "We go through emotions and we are frustrated. We have moments where we didn't agree with what was going on out on the track, but we've always been able to talk through it, have that respect."

WALLACE, THE 1989 Cup champion, said it isn't really surprising how well the two native Californians get along, considering their similarities.

"They're both close to the same age," said Wallace, now an analyst for the ABC/ESPN NASCAR races. "They hang out together all the time, they have fun together, they vacation together. And they've got a great, great calming influence in their car owner that's with them all the time. This guy's at the shop all the time.

"I think they really, really respect Rick. And the things they like are almost identical."

So, do the two champions ever get annoyed with one another?

"The only thing he's irritated me with is that four (wins) in a row here lately," Gordon said, laughing. "I mean, I've got a 5.2 (finishing) average (in the Chase for the Championship) and I'm 86 points down going into the final race. That irritates me."

Johnson looked a little sheepish when asked to reply to the same question.

"I really can't think of anything about Jeff that irritates me," he said, shrugging. "It is complicated and it is tough a times. But having someone you know so well and have so much respect for, I think has made it easier in our situations.

"We both have shown that we're willing to race hard and aggressive with one another."

That was most apparent in the spring race on the half-mile oval at Martinsville, where Johnson and Gordon waged a battle for the top spot over the final 53 laps, with Gordon slamming hard into Johnson's rear numerous times trying to pass before his friend held on for a narrow victory.

That kind of a duel isn't likely Sunday on the considerably faster 1.5-mile Homestead oval and Gordon has mixed emotions about trying to take the championship away from Johnson.

"We want to end the season on a positive note," Gordon said. "But the only way we're going to have a real chance is if Jimmie has a problem. We don't wish that upon anybody, and certainly not our teammate.

"I'm just proud of Hendrick Motorsports and the fact that the championship is going to come home to Rick Hendrick."


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