Passing the torch
November 25, 2006 8:38pm CST
Jimmie Johnson spent the last five seasons as Jeff Gordon's protégé and apprentice at Hendrick Motorsports. But after winning his first Nextel Cup championship Sunday, Johnson now is the No. 1 headliner at HMS, while Gordon for the first time in his Cup career has been relegated to No. 2 in the organization. And no one could be happier about that changing of the guard than Gordon. "If it is, that's fine with me," Gordon said. "I love what Jimmie Johnson brings into motorsports. I'm excited to be a part of it." It was Gordon back in 2001 who gave Johnson the break he so desperately needed, giving birth to a career that has been nothing short of spectacular – one that reached its highest heights Sunday when Johnson won the Cup title at Homestead-Miami Speedway. It was also Gordon who backed up his faith in Johnson by stepping forward and writing a check to become co-owner of Johnson's No. 48 Chevrolet. The belief of the four-time Cup champ and his considerable investment in Johnson's career paid the biggest dividend of all on Sunday. "I'm very proud," Gordon said. "I don't like to take much of the credit because Jimmie is a heck of a race car driver. Somebody was going to pick him up and I'm just really thankful that the opportunity presented itself to us." Although Gordon is credited with discovering Johnson, that's not exactly the case, Gordon revealed after Sunday's race. "He came to me," Gordon said. "He asked me some opinions about car owners, teams and what his next move should be. I was kind of blown away for him to look up to me in that way, to come and tap me on the shoulder and ask me for that advice." Johnson's timing was impeccable, as he suddenly became a poster boy being in the right place at the right time. "It just so happened that we were thinking about building a fourth team at Hendrick Motorsports," Gordon recalled. "I went to Rick Hendrick, asked him 'What do you think of this Jimmie Johnson guy? I think he's got a lot of talent. I think if we put him in some good equipment, he can do some great things.' "Rick said, 'Are you willing to put your money where your mouth is?' I said, 'Yes, I am,' and that's kind of where the partnership kind of came together." There's an old saying among past Cup champions that the first championship is always the toughest to earn. While subsequent titles are far from being easy to attain, Gordon sees even more championship trophies in Johnson's future. In the meantime, Johnson will do just fine as the face of the sport after this first championship win. "I think Jimmie's going to be one of the best champions we've ever had," Gordon said. "He cares so much about it and it means a tremendous amount to him. He's a great spokesperson, is comfortable in front of people and the cameras. I think Jimmie's really going to help take our sport to another level and is going to be a great representative." Hendrick, who this weekend marked the 10th anniversary of his first diagnosis of leukemia, had a long talk with Johnson on Saturday night. He told Johnson winning the title was not a matter of life or death, and he also enlightened Johnson about what to expect and tried to calm his young driver and prevent him from being overanxious on Sunday. Gordon took a different tact. "I really just wanted to stay away from saying too much and [allowing] him [to] over-think it," Gordon said. "I just let him kind of do his thing. All I said to him [Saturday] night was to get a good night's sleep, and then told him [in the] morning that there's nobody any better out there, just do what you know how to do and that was it." For the record, Gordon finished a disappointing 24th in Sunday's race and sixth in the final season standings, 219 points behind his championship-celebrating teammate. But Sunday wasn't about Gordon, it was about his heir-apparent. "Those guys just fought back, and that's the type of race team it takes to win championships," Gordon said. "They're fighters, they got down and that's a championship-caliber team. They earned it and they deserve it." Veteran motorsports writer Jerry Bonkowski is Yahoo! Sports' NASCAR columnist. Send Jerry a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.