CONCORD, N.C. — On July 14, Jimmie Johnson will celebrate the 19th anniversary of his first victory in one of NASCAR’s national divisions.
It’s often forgotten, but Johnson’s first NASCAR triumph wasn’t his first Cup Series victory at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., on April 28, 2002. Instead, it came in NASCAR Xfinity Series competition at Chicagoland Speedway on July 14, 2001.
At the time, Johnson was still a relative unknown in the NASCAR world. Prior his victory that day in Joilet, Ill., Johnson had only two top-five finishes the Xfinity Series driving for Herzog Motorsports.
In fact, Johnson was probably best known for a scary crash that happened the previous year at Watkins Glen (N.Y.) Int’l, when the brakes failed on his No. 92 Chevrolet and he drove headlong into the turn-one barrier. He escaped injury in the crash, climbing out of his car and standing on its roof to salute the applauding crowd.
A little less than a year later, fans at Chicagoland Speedway were applauding and cheering for Johnson as he emerged from his race car following his first Xfinity Series victory at the new 1.5-mile track.
“I, without a doubt, would not be a NASCAR driver if I didn’t meet the Herzogs and we didn’t form our friendship and relationship and move forward,” Johnson said during a Thursday conference call with members of the media.
Johnson’s relationship with Herzog Motorsports started in off-road truck racing and eventually led to both parties advancing to the American Speed Ass’n and, later, the Xfinity Series.
“I was able to help bring Chevrolet to the mix,” Johnson said of his relationship with Herzog Motorsports. “They were looking for somewhere to put me and I knew that they ran an amazing off-road program — and their racing in the desert series and also a series in the Midwest — and they lacked manufacturer support. So I felt like if I could bring that (Chevrolet) to the table, I could get us together.
“In our early conversations that certainly was the goal and objective, but we quickly realized and understood that Bill Herzog, the father, and his two sons, Randy and Stan, that all three had desires to go stock car racing and wanted to end up in NASCAR some day,” Johnson continued. “So once we all had that common vision, we were able to lay out a plan of attack and how we could hopefully get to the NASCAR Cup Series. We ran a few years of off-road together and they helped me transition into stock car racing in the ASA series and then they purchased the Busch Grand National team that I drove.”
The team made its NASCAR debut in 1999 with Johnson partaking in five events under the Herzog Motorsports banner. Johnson had made his NASCAR debut the previous season, running three races for two different teams — one owned by Tad Geschickter and one by Mike Curb.
In 2000, Johnson and Herzog Motorsports, with sponsorship from Alltel, ran the full NASCAR Xfinity Series schedule. The first season in the Xfinity Series was fairly lackluster with Johnson managing six top-10 finishes and a 10th-place championship finish.
Fast forward to 2001 and the Herzog Motorsports team had a slightly new look. Gone was Alltel, replaced by Excedrin. It would be the year that paved the road to Johnson’s seven NASCAR Cup Series championships.
Johnson had no way of knowing it, but the victory that day at Chicagoland Speedway was simply the start of a fantastic career.
His win that afternoon was by no means assured. Johnson took the lead on lap 158 of the 200-lap affair when crew chief Tony Liberati called for a two-tire pit stop.
“We practiced it during happy hour and the car was still fast with no adjustments and two (fresh) tires,” Johnson said in the July 18, 2001 edition of National Speed Sport News. “So we knew if the race came down to the wire that we could roll the dice. I knew a lot of other cars had taken on four tires, so I knew it was up to me to keep it up front.”
Ironically, in the closing laps, Johnson was pursued by Ryan Newman, who was driving a car sponsored by Alltel, Johnson’s former sponsor.
“I looked up and saw the 02 in my rearview mirror,” Johnson said at the time. “Tony (Liberati) was on the radio. He knew my lap times were good and he just wanted me to hold my line. He kept encouraging me that if I stayed low, it would be awful hard for him (Newman) to pass me.”
Newman led 84 laps that day but dropped to sixth during the final round of pit stops. He chased Johnson down and was within 0.3 seconds with 10 laps left, but contact with the car driven by Tony Raines gave Johnson the breathing room he needed.
Later that same year, Johnson was announced as the newest driver for Hendrick Motorsports, inking a deal with Lowe’s to sponsor the No. 48 Chevrolet. Johnson made his Cup Series debut at Charlotte Motor Speedway that October, finishing 39th.
But it was that victory at Chicagoland Speedway that gave Johnson his first taste of victory at the top levels of NASCAR and he couldn’t have done it without the Herzog family.
“When the Hendrick opportunity came along, I approached them and shared with them this opportunity,” Johnson recalled. “And like the great men they were, because sadly, Stan and Bill are no longer (alive), but all three of them were very excited for me and insisted that I take this chance of a lifetime with Hendrick Motorsports.
“We got close. We made it to the Busch Series and almost made it to the Cup Series like that original vision it was that we shared.”