Jimmie Johnson gears for another milestone with 600th start


AP Sports Writer

LONG POND, Pa. — Jimmie Johnson had been plucked from NASCAR’s farm system to drive for owner Rick Hendrick with a resume so ordinary the team wondered if it made the right call on the California kid.

Until Johnson could join Hendrick Motorsports in late 2001, he plodded along for a second-tier team on the brink of closing and had flashed just the occasional spark of future stardom.

His early 2001 results hardly seemed worthy of a teammate about to be paired with NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon.

“The real concern was, had we made a good decision?” Hendrick mainstay Ken Howes said.

Howes, who has spent more than three decades at Hendrick Motorsports, had worked as a crew chief and was assigned to help the rookie driver with his learning curve at the elite Cup level. Johnson went out for a test session in one of Gordon’s Chevrolets and found the power in a car that suited his driving style and humbled the doubters in his camp.

“I came home and reported back and said, ‘Guys, stop worrying. It’s going to be OK,'” Howes said.

Just a few months later, Johnson was set for his Cup debut.

Johnson made his first career Cup start on Oct. 7, 2001 at Charlotte Motor Speedway and on Sunday he’ll earn one more slice of NASCAR history when he becomes the 30th driver to make 600 career starts.

Over the first 599 starts, he has blazed through a career that stamps him on the short list of all-time greats: Johnson has a record-tying seven championship, 83 wins, 35 poles, 224 top-five finishes and 348 top-10s.

Who knew this was possible in 2001?

“If anybody stood up at that time stood up and said, ‘Hey, this guy’s going to win seven championships,’ they’d probably send you to a drug test,” Howes said. “Your hope was that he had talent, he would gain experience and go on to become a good competitive driver. Win some races each year and kind of start there. Perhaps challenge for a championship.”

Through a confluence of events for Johnson that included a bold meeting with Gordon and splendid timing once Hendrick decided to expand four cars, he was the chosen one at HMS despite one win in 72 career starts with Herzog Motorsports.