Johnson gets first Winston Cup victory

Monday, April 29th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

FONTANA, Calif. (AP) _ Jimmie Johnson's parents watched their son's first Winston Cup victory on TV from their home in Concord, N.C.

Rick Hendrick and Jeff Gordon, co-owners of the rookie's car, were at California Speedway and acting like proud parents. Their protege held off Kurt Busch on Sunday to win the NAPA Auto Parts 500 in only his 13th Winston Cup start.

``Jeff and I thought he was such a good talent,'' said Hendrick, whose team also fields Chevrolets for Gordon, Terry Labonte and Jerry Nadeau. ``He didn't have a sponsor, didn't know what the team was going to look like. We just knew he was a young boy with a lot of talent.''

Hendrick also brought Gordon, now a four-time series champion and winner of 58 races, to NASCAR's top stock car series.

``When you see them, you just try to take advantage of it,'' he said. ``I never dreamed we'd do this well this quick.''

Gordon lost a lap because of an unscheduled pit stop and finished 16th. This was the 18th race in a row without a victory for the defending series champ.

Still, he trotted breathlessly to the victory celebration.

``I didn't know that Jimmie had won,'' Gordon said. ``I went from being real mad about my day to being really happy and excited for Jimmie.''

Once he realized Johnson had won, Gordon pulled alongside to bump the side of the No. 48 Chevy in salute and give a big thumbs-up.

``When the right chemistry gets put together, it doesn't matter how many races you've got under your belt,'' Gordon said.

Johnson, whose previous best was third last month in Atlanta, admitted he was surprised to win so soon.

``Heck, yeah,'' he said. ``You always think you've got enough ability to win, but you never know until you get out there and do it.''

Johnson was so excited he overdid the celebration, smoking his tires and spinning the car on the track and through the grass until he blew the engine and transmission.

Johnson lived in El Cajon, about 100 miles from the track, before his family moved to North Carolina.

``This is unbelievable,'' he said. ``I know my mom and dad are sitting at home going crazy and wishing they were here.''

Johnson beat Busch by about six car-lengths on the 2-mile oval. Much of the credit goes to crew chief Chad Knaus, who gambled on a fuel-only pit stop near the end. Knaus earned his first win in only his second full season as a crew chief.

``It paid off,'' he said. ``I was going to get sick to my stomach and throw up after I made the call, but it worked out well.''

His driver didn't question the gamble.

``I smiled because I knew what it was going to do for us,'' Johnson said. ``It was going to put us out in front. I was just hoping that Kurt wasn't going to do the same thing.''

Busch had the best car in the first half of the 250-lap race, building a lead of 15 seconds before a caution flag on lap 141 tightened the race.

After that, it was a battle among Busch, former series champion Dale Jarrett, Ricky Rudd and Johnson.

Jarrett was out front on lap 229 when Kevin Harvick and Dale Earnhardt Jr. wrecked in the fourth turn, bringing out the final caution.

The left rear tire on Harvick's car blew as he raced through turn three. As the car veered down the banked track, Earnhardt's car slammed into the driver side, sending both into the concrete wall.

Harvick was not injured, but Earnhardt bruised his right ankle and left the infield medical center on crutches. He was to have the swollen ankle checked Monday in North Carolina.

Most of the lead lap cars took advantage of the caution to pit, but Bill Elliott stayed on the track and was just ahead of Johnson for the restart on lap 237. Johnson's car shot past Elliott's Dodge in the first turn and stayed out front.

Busch, driving a Ford, moved past Elliott and Rudd and grabbed the runner-up spot on lap 247. He couldn't catch Johnson, who crossed the finish line 0.620 seconds ahead.

Rudd was third, followed by Elliott, Busch's teammate Mark Martin, Jarrett, series leader Sterling Marlin and 2001 California winner Rusty Wallace.

Busch wore a straw hat after the race in honor of team owner Jack Roush, who is recovering from an April 19 plane crash. Busch could hardly believe Johnson beat him without taking tires.

``You never expect to get beat by fuel only,'' he said. ``We just didn't have the right position at the right time.''