DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – For Jimmie Johnson, an initial turning point in his career occurred not at a racetrack, but at his hometown pet food store.
“There is a man named Jeff Bennett that owned a pet food company that had five little buggies that raced in the Mickey Thompson Stadium Series,” said Johnson, a native of El Cajon, Calif. “One of his drivers left to become a back up driver in the Truck Series.
“When he left mid-season, it left an opening for somebody to come in.”
Johnson seized the opportunity and, with help from his father and sponsors, kick-started a career that brought him from the West Coast through the American Speed Association and finally to Hendrick Motorsports in 2001.
Now a six-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion, Johnson leads active drivers and trails Hall of Famers Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt Sr. all-time by one in that category. But as Johnson looks ahead to February’s Daytona 500, he knows his current success stems from a previous racing lesson - communication.
“I could spot early that communication was key,” Johnson told members of the media during a recent test session at Daytona International Speedway. “It was really important during my off road days. It's really tough when you're on a dirt surface, and you're airborne half the time trying to figure out what adjustment really helped.”
He learned how to convey what was happening with his car during races, and that became a key ingredient in the championship combination of Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus. Johnson’s knowledge is further complemented by his involvement with the No. 48 team.
“(Johnson) can do things with a racecar that most mortals can’t,” Knaus told the media at Homestead-Miami Speedway after winning the 2013 championship. “Let’s just be straight with it. I’m very blessed to be his crew chief. But I know that the resource that we have at Hendrick Motorsports allows him to be as good as what he is. There’s no doubt about it. (Team owner) Mr. (Rick) Hendrick has given us everything that we could possibly need with engines, the chassis. We’re able to turn around and make things happen quickly. That’s not the way it is everywhere.
“Jimmie responds to that. He’s very into what it is we’re doing. He’s very studious, very intuitive of what’s happening around him, what’s going on when we’re testing or racing. He feeds us great information.”
Not surprisingly, Johnson already has reflected on the 2013 season in light of the upcoming one. NASCAR might make rule changes along the way, but he is focused on strengthening his contribution to the No. 48 team.
“Things always change with rules, tires and formats,” said Johnson, a two-time Daytona 500 champion. “We always look at ourselves as individual members of the team and think about what we can do better at. Last year we let a lot of races slip away during the regular season that I shouldn't have. So that is an area that I've got to focus on.
“I have an amazing opportunity ahead of myself this year.”