Jimmie Johnson‘s October 2011 victory at Kansas Speedway in Kansas City happened at an opportune time in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, but just like the University of Kansas Jayhawks college basketball team, which resides about 30 miles west of the speedway on I-70, the win wasn’t enough to pull off another championship.
But Johnson’s stats in Kansas, like the Jayhawks, are impressive, and include multiple championships, like the Jayhawks. What few may not remember was that those championships would not have happened without the help of some local businessmen. Brothers Stan and Randy Herzog, owners of a St. Joseph, Mo.-based company, were Johnson’s early team owners in his off-road racing days.
Johnson originally met Randy while he did some occasional television reporting during his SODA (Short-course, Off-road Driver’s Association) Series days. The meeting would be the start of a partnership that would bring Johnson, the Herzogs and Chevrolet together. Johnson was hired to drive for the Herzogs in the SODA Series for the 1996 and 1997 seasons.
In 1998, Johnson and the Herzogs would graduate to the ASA (American Speed Association) Series. The Herzogs needed someone to drive Johnson’s now vacated truck. The last name above the window of the off-road buggy didn’t change as Johnson’s mentor and friend Rick Johnson (no relation) was hired. That year, the mentor would win the SODA Pro-2 championship and the young protégé would win ASA Rookie of the Year honors for the Herzogs.
Young Johnson also ran two Nationwide Series races in addition to the full ASA season that year. The races would set up the Herzogs and Johnsons eventual entry into the series full-time in 2000. (An interesting side note: during the 1999 ASA season, current No. 48 Sprint Cup car chief Ron Malec was the crew chief for Rick Johnson and Howey Lettow was crew chief for the younger Johnson.)
A fortuitous and now somewhat famous meeting with Jeff Gordon would end the partnership with the Herzogs but not Johnson’s gratitude for what the brothers did for his career.
The former team owners and driver maintain their relationship today with the Herzogs being generous supporters of the Jimmie Johnson Foundation.
What is it you like about Kansas?
“I like the options, we can run anywhere. It has just been a strong track for me through the years. It’s a lot like Chicago, which is another real strong track for me. There are just certain tracks that just kind of click. Kansas has been one of those for me.”
It meant a lot to you last year when you won at Kansas Speedway. Can you talk about how cool that might be to score Hendrick Motorsports’ 200th win there?
“Yeah, I mean, whenever it happens is going to be very special for the company. Again, I just want to win. I don’t care where it is, whatever reason. There are 36, 38 of these things a year, and I want to take home a bunch of trophies. Second is nice, but winning is everything. At Martinsville, we had that warm, fuzzy feeling there. It’s nice to go to tracks where you know you’re going to run well, and you go down there with high hopes but, unfortunately, it doesn’t guarantee much.”
Johnson’s Kansas Speedway Quick Stats:
· Two wins in 11 starts.
· Three poles at the 1.5-mile track.
· Four top-five (36.4 percent) and nine top-10 finishes (81.8 percent) in 11 starts.
· An average start of 10.5 and an average finish of 8.4.
· One DNF (did not finish) that occurred in 2004.
· 2,856 of 2,885 laps completed (99.0 percent) and 501 laps led.
· Sprint Cup’s best driver rating (120.6) and the top spot in eight driver statistical categories.
· Johnson moves up two spots in the driver standings after a second-place finish at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth last weekend. He is eighth, 40 points out of first after starting the season at a career-tying low of 37th at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway.
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