Daytona rookie learning lessons on track
Saturday, February 16, 2002
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- There's not a lot of love flowing around the race track for Jimmie Johnson.
The rookie learned quickly that few veterans are hoping the polesitter wins Sunday's Daytona 500 and almost everyone wants to teach him a lesson.
He's been bumped, banged, pushed out of the draft, toyed into making a move at the wrong time and basically treated like a pesky little kid. Never mind that the 26-year-old Johnson drives for Hendrick Motorsports and four-time Winston Cup champion Jeff Gordon.
"He's been schooled out there a few times," crew chief Chad Knaus said. "I see some of the guys setting him up, getting ready to put a move on him, and I just let it happen. Jimmie needs to figure out the tendencies of these guys or else it will keep happening."
This isn't how Johnson dreamed his first Daytona 500 would be. Never did he expect to have the fastest car out of the gate, dominating the first few rounds of practice and winning the pole for the season-opening race.
He took little time to celebrate because he knew the good times weren't going to last.
The day after he took the pole, no one wanted to work with Johnson on the track.
Tony Stewart set him up, pretending to go one way on a passing attempt then blowing by Johnson the other way as Johnson found himself in the wrong spot to try a block.
Ward Burton has pushed him out of the draft, and Dale Jarrett also led Johnson astray during a practice.
"That first day after I won the pole, I think I was hung out 20 times," Johnson said. "It was pretty humbling. All I could do was go home and think about it, try to figure out what I did wrong. It made it a little hard to sleep."
He didn't give up and was much better the next day. He still made mistakes, but was only kicked out of line two times. And he started to figure out whom he could trust on the race track and whom he should avoid.
In theory, he should be able to trust Gordon and his other two teammates, Terry Labonte and Jerry Nadeau. But in the biggest race of the year, it's every man for himself.
"First you need your teammates around you, then you have to hope you're better," Johnson said. "Because if they've got the run, they aren't going to wait around for you."
That happened to him in Thursday's first qualifying race, when Gordon passed Johnson in Turn 1 of the first lap of the race and didn't stick around to make sure Johnson could keep up.
Johnson got shuffled back, and in trying to get move up, drove below the yellow line on the race track. He tried to slow up to avoid coming back over the line ahead of the car next to him -- improving position while under the line is against the rules -- but Burton bumped him from behind.
Unable to slow or risk a wreck, he motored forward, passed the car next to him and got slapped with a stop-and-go penalty. It put him so far out of the race that had Johnson not already won the pole in time trials, he would not have qualified for the 500.
"I was a little bummed about that race," Johnson said.
"But I just chalk it up as another learning experience and try to take something from it into Sunday's race. There's not much else you can do."