CHARLOTTE, N.C. — There’s an anecdote told to illustrate how little fame and fortune have changed Jimmie Johnson in the 14 years since he went from middle-of-the-road driver to NASCAR superstar.
Apparently, demand for Johnson-signed memorabilia was so low back then, the driver took the time to dot the two I’s in his name. Six championships and $148 million in winnings later, they get ignored.
“That’s really, truthfully the one thing that’s changed about him,” said Tom Lamb, chief marketing officer of Lowe’s. “His demeanor, his humility, his relationship with sponsors and with fans, very little to nothing has changed over that timeframe. It tells me, ‘This is a guy who knows who he is, knows what his values are and his values aren’t for sale and won’t compromise him.’”
The success, the humility, the dignity and grace are all part of the many reasons why Lowe’s on Monday confirmed a two-year contract extension with Johnson and Hendrick Motorsports that runs through 2017. Lowe’s has been Johnson’s sponsor since his 2001 Cup debut.
Johnson chuckled with appreciation at Lamb’s anecdote, one of the many feel-good yarns often used to describe the most dominant NASCAR driver of the last decade.
He recognizes what a break he got in 2001 when Jeff Gordon sold Rick Hendrick on the idea of building a new team around Johnson. It was a longshot: Johnson at that point was best known for sailing nose-first into a wall in a 2000 wreck at Watkins Glen, where he climbed on the roof of his crumpled car and triumphantly raised his arms in the air.
But Gordon was adamant in 2001 that Johnson could be something special, and so was Hendrick’s late son, Ricky, who had developed a friendship with the former off-road racer from California who had migrated to North Carolina to take a shot at stock cars.
Nothing could happen, though, without sponsorship. Hendrick worked hard to sell Lowe’s on coming aboard.
The company had been in NASCAR at various levels for years, had never been to victory lane, and was unsure about this Johnson kid. But Hendrick was persistent and was certain he had closed the deal.
“I am sitting at motorsports thinking the deal is done and in walks Bob Tillman, chairman of Lowe’s. Scared the (crap) out of me,” Hendrick recalled.
Johnson was initially not present but rushed to team headquarters when told the Lowe’s executive team was waiting to meet him.
He had limited goals for his Cup career at the time: “I hoped to win a race, I knew that would keep me employed for a couple of years.”
But within minutes of sitting down at the table with Tillman, Johnson recognized he needed to sell himself, and quickly.
“He looked me in the eyes and said, ‘We’ve been in racing a long time, we’re tired of losing, my company needs a winning driver. Can you win?’” Johnson said. “I’m sitting there, I’ve only won two ASA races in my whole life, and I’m only in my fourth year ever in a stock car. I somehow am able to put it together and in a convincing manner, through all my insecurities, say, ‘Absolutely. I can win.’ “
Hendrick said Johnson never flinched in his delivery and sold it perfectly.
Fourteen years later, they all recognize that was a defining moment.
“As time went on, we found out that moment and how I handled myself was a huge factor in Lowe’s signing the contract,” said Johnson.
Never have the parties regretted their decision, and Johnson on Sunday begins his quest for a record-tying seventh championship when the Chase for the Sprint Cup opens at Chicagoland Speedway.
Although he goes in tied with Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth as the top seed, he’s a bit of an afterthought because Hendrick’s drivers struggled through the summer. Although Johnson has four wins this year, his victory was 13 races ago and Joe Gibbs Racing has taken off during that stretch.
Everyone at Hendrick Motorsports admits the organization is behind the competition right now, but the team owner dares anyone to dismiss their chances. Johnson, Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. have three of the 16 slots in the Chase field.
Johnson proved in that meeting 14 years ago with Lowe’s that he doesn’t rattle. He knows how to race a 10-race shootout, and isn’t buying into the JGR hype.
“Like it or not, whether we want to admit it or not, the summer months are always hard on us,” Johnson said. “We feel like we are behind, we’re not building the mouse trap the way we need to and we are aggressively working on it. But the format is more forgiving, we are getting back on our best tracks and I would never count us out.”