The Next Hendrick Phenom?

His fellow NASCAR Busch Series competitors aren’t the only things Jimmie Johnson has to concern himself with during the 2001 season.

Although his main priority is the No. 92 Herzog Motorsports Chevrolet in the Busch Series, Johnson says he has to guard himself against looking ahead to next year, when he’ll drive a fourth NASCAR Winston Cup Series car full time for Hendrick Motorsports.

Johnson will do some testing - and is scheduled to run six Winston Cup races for Hendrick this year - but he doesn’t want to lose sight of his Busch Series goals for the upcoming campaign, either.

“That’s going to be a cool deal (at Hendrick Motorsports) and I want to get going with that thing, but my focus has got to be on the Busch program,” Johnson says. “That’s what really got me in the position to be hired by Hendrick Motorsports, and I don’t want to let the Herzogs, or Excedrin down in any way.

“I’m going to try and have as strong a year as I can for Herzog Motorsports, and that’s my number one priority. I’ll spend a little bit of time with the Hendrick people, but most of the time will be spent at Herzogs trying to get this Excedrin Chevrolet into victory lane a few times.”

Hendrick Motorsports owner Rick Hendrick is chomping at the bit to get Johnson, a rising NASCAR star, behind the wheel of one of his cars.

“We can’t wait to have Jimmie come over here and drive for us,” Hendrick says. “He’ll officially join us in the second half of this season when he drives selected Winston Cup races for us. We’re really excited about it. I’ve watched Jimmie and Jeff (Gordon) together, and Jeff has been working with Jimmie some already. It’s going to be an exciting deal.”

Johnson’s new Winston Cup team will be housed in Hendrick Motorsports’ new shop (currently under construction) along with Gordon’s No. 24 Chevrolet team. That will give Gordon a chance to “tutor” Hendrick’s latest student.

“You look at the future of this sport, and what we’re doing is trying to move forward with it,” Gordon says. “That means you’ve got to build a facility like we’re building. We’re going to put two teams under one roof, and it’s just kind of worked out very well to where we could get Jimmie, who was looking to do something in Winston Cup.

“I did get a chance to race side-by-side with him on five or six occasions this past year in the Busch Series. He definitely impressed me. He’s a guy who definitely knows how to push the pedal, but he also uses his head. He’s going to be a great addition for all of Hendrick Motorsports. It’s nice to have some fresh, young blood come in here, like we did with Jerry (Nadeau) this past year.”

“He (Johnson) reminds me a lot of Terry Labonte,” says Robbie Loomis, crew chief for Gordon’s No. 24 Chevrolet. “He’s a very consistent driver. He’s steady and he’s good on equipment, and I like that considering he’s going to be a rookie next year. For his first year in the Busch Series last year, he did an excellent job.”

Johnson put up some solid numbers during his rookie campaign in the Busch Series in 2000. In 31 starts, he had six top-10 finishes and finished 10th in the points standings.

It took a while for the Herzog Motorsports team to get untracked, but once it did, it proved to be one of the better teams throughout the second half of the season.

“We ran pretty consistently in the Top 10, or around it, once we got some momentum going,” Johnson says. “We didn’t get a top-five finish, and that was disappointing for us. That’s the next big hurdle we have to overcome.

“Once that happens, though, once we put ourselves in the Top 5 week-in and week-out, then we’ll be able to put ourselves in line to win some races. Our goal is to win races and poles, and I know this team can do that.”

Toby Porter, a former standout in the Slim Jim All Pro Series, is scheduled to run some ASA Series and Busch Series races in 2001 under the Herzog Motorsports banner. The team is grooming him to take over for Johnson when Johnson moves over to Hendrick Motorsports full time in 2002.

Johnson says he’s still got a long way to go to mold himself into a strong competitor in the Winston Cup Series. Seat time, he says, will be his biggest ally.

“The one thing I really need is more experience,” Johnson says. “There isn’t a substitute for experience. Coming back to some of these tracks for a second time – Charlotte was a good example – made me a better driver. The first Charlotte race we had to take a provisional, and the second Charlotte race we qualified seventh. It’s just amazing how much experience does for you in these cars.”

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