That's History! NASCAR's Checkered (flag) Past, One Story at a Time · Amy Henderson · Monday August 7, 2006
It’s always a simple product of history that one moment, however spectacular, can define a season, a career, even a lifetime. Like…well…you know the guy. That poor ski jumper forever immortalized on “Wide World of Sports” for his “agony of defeat” wipeout. No matter what else that guy accomplished in his career, he's known as the guy who fell off that ski jump, every single week, for thirty years.
It's not that bad in NASCAR – those men who’ve braved their own spectacular moments have other accomplishments that are also well known. But there are a few which have those spectacular crashes too entrenched in anyone’s memory NOT to make every highlight reel ever produced: Ricky Craven at Talladega. Elliott Sadler at Talladega. Rusty Wallace at Daytona AND Talladega. That Busch rookie at Watkins Glenâ€¦
Admit it, you hadn't heard much of that rookie back then (although you certainly have now). Back in 2000, the Busch Series was all about Jeff Green, already cruising to a dominating championship with ppc Racing, the last independent Busch team to do so. Green was looking to continue his dominance at the road course at Watkins Glen, but was stymied by Ron Fellows, who won the pole. But it neither Green nor Fellows that stole the show on race day. Instead, it was a young and virtually unknown rookie who took center stage…and probably not by choice.
It’s no secret road courses are tricky for stock cars, and dangerous off course excursions are common. Cars carry a lot of speed into some of those corners. So, as a safety measure, should a tire go down or brakes fail, tracks use a deep sand trap just outside the turn to stop them before they hit the retaining wall. Problem is, on this day, the sand trap didn't do its job…well, that's not entirely true. The sand trap didn't work, because the rookie and his car that needed it didn't actually hit it. No…they went right over it.
The lap began without a hitch, as the red, white, and blue car came past the start/finish line, gunning for turn one. Now, turn one at the Glen requires a lot of brake to navigate, and the kid in the car went to step on the brakes, as he’d done for every other lap – except this time, he got nothing. He'd later refer to that moment as “high pucker factor.” You think? The rookie's always been a smart driver, someone who’s never intentionally torn up his or anyone else's equipment. He could have hit the car in front of him, slowed himself that way…but he didn't want to hurt that guy. So, this up and coming driver aimed for the sand, hoping it would keep him from contact with the outside retaining wall. Only one problem with that strategy: the red, white, and blue racecar never touched it.
Instead, the car got just enough air underneath to sail over the sand trap and the grass. Gaining speed as it went, the only thing in front of the car now was a wall. Somewhere along the line the kid saw the white wall and thought - logically enough – “concrete.” He tried to relax for the impact; he knew it would be rough. He was right; the impact, when it came, was spectacular.
But not because the racecar hit concrete and disintegrated. Nope; instead, it was the wall that disintegrated. It wasn't concrete; it was styrofoam. Suddenly, the immediate area looked less like a crash scene and more like a very small blizzard. When the dust settled, here was the rookie driver, all floppy hair and grin, on top of the car and gesturing like it was in Victory Lane. Had it been someone else, you might have thought he was being facetious, even pretentious. But this kid was just happy he was still alive. You could see the relief and joy all over his face. It wasn't staged…it wasn't cocky…or fake. It was just a happy, almost goofy kid, so amazed to be in one piece that he got carried away. You had to like a kid with that kind of attitude.
That rookie finished in the Top 10 in Busch Series points both that year and the next, winning a race at Chicago in 2001. In that same year, he signed a Cup contract to drive for a newly formed team co-owned by both Rick Hendrick and Cup champion driver Jeff Gordon. Since moving to that ride the following year, he has been a contender for the Cup title throughout each season in the series. After Sunday, he has won every one of NASCAR's most prestigious races. And suddenly, perhaps as a side effect of driving for Gordon, perhaps because he wins so much or isn't always that goofy kid anymore, he's learned to endure fans who don't cheer for him, some of whom say things about him that nobody should ever have to hear.
The slightly goofy, floppy-haired Busch rookie from that day at Watkins Glen is, of course, Nextel Cup point leader, 2006 Daytona 500, and Allstate 400 at the Brickyard Champion Jimmie Johnson. Not a kid anymore (at this level he can't afford to be), Johnson has endured doubt and disdain from all corners in recent years. His team has been nothing short of spectacular all year long; but still, the detractors are there. Johnson would like nothing better than to silence them with a championship, and took another big step in that direction with the Brickyard win. Yet what was Johnson asked about after Sunday’s race; what was shown on the highlight reel along with some memorable wins? That's right; the younger version of himself destroying a wall and celebrating the fact that he was still alive as a Busch rookie at Watkins Glen. That one spectacular moment refused to go away even during Johnson’s brightest hour.
That slightly goofy, floppy-haired kid isn't totally gone though. Johnson hosts a program on XM Radio that shows his fans that side of him is still there. He had to learn to toe the company line at a young age, and learned his lessons well. But Jimmie Johnson is still that kid at heart, and now he's secure enough in his own skin to show it.
The Nextel Cup Series swings to Watkins Glen this week, and Johnson would like to have a reason to celebrate again; only this time with a trophy, driver, car and walls intact, along with some good brakes. Not that it won't still make the highlight reels, but Johnson has been there, done that…and that's history.
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