Tough Act To Follow
November 27, 2002 | 12:52 P.M. EST
“We entered this season with goals of qualifying for each event,” said Johnson. “[We wanted to] finish on the lead lap and finish in the top 15 in each race. We thought if we could achieve those goals, we would have a great season and hopefully, near the end of the year, lead some races, contend for a few wins and finish in the top 15 in the standings.”
Just in case you’re keeping track, the 48 team qualified for all the events, led some races, not only contended for a win - but won three times and finished in the top 5 in standings. Just what do you do for an encore after that kind of initial success? Johnson says, “We got a top five in the final Winston Cup standings, and we'll go on from here.”
This team hit the ground running in early January 2002 at winter testing and, basically, didn’t miss hardly a beat all year. Even after being penalized by NASCAR for an unapproved part, the team continued to gel and win. Those 25 points would have moved Johnson past his team owner, Jeff Gordon, for fourth in point standings.
Maybe that’s what you do for the sophomore season; beat your owner in points. Much was said, written and broadcast this year about the “Young Guns” of NASCAR moving into the sport to root out the older more established names. Alot of that talk was correct. Johnson was fifth in points, rookie Ryan Newman sixth and second year driver Kurt Busch grabbing third. Add Greg Biffle and Jamie MacMurray as rookies next season and the young guns are going to be after it again in ‘03.
Johnson will arguably be one of the drivers mentioned to contend for the 2003 championship. The new body style for the Chevy’s may affect down force and drag numbers, but won’t affect team 48. “Looking ahead to next season, we'll have a new body for the Lowe's Monte Carlo,” said Johnson. “One that should be more aerodynamic and offer us a better opportunity to compete with the Dodges, Pontiacs and Fords in certain respects. “
“But all in all, it has been an incredible year,” continued Johnson. “I've got to thank everyone at Hendrick Motorsports for all the hard work and dedication that made this possible. On top of that, I can't say enough about Lowe's and all of the support from their employee owners and everyone in their corporate offices. That's been a great relationship. This is just the start of great things for us.” Not discounting the hard work, dedication and great sponsor, Johnson still has a hand full ahead of him. Not since Dale Earnhardt, Sr., has a second year driver won a Winston Cup Championship – not even his boss, four time champ Jeff Gordon.
Johnson says, “This was our rookie year, and we were able to learn and gain experience while taking poles, leading laps, winning races and, most of all, having fun. We had such a great season.”
Being a rookie sometimes makes things easier because they are new and different. “It's so hard right now to completely reflect back on the year,” says Johnson. “The one area that was the hardest part of the season was simply the length -- not really the number of races, but the number of weeks that you have commitments and activities that surround racing. Coming from the Busch Series where we would get a few more weeks off, it was a little bit of an adjustment, but one that I'm glad I had to get used to.
Johnson will need to get used to a few more things too. Stiffer competition, a new body style, a new crop of rookies and all those other guys who are back on equal footing for the new year. Right now, all drivers are tied with zero points.
So what do you do for an encore? Johnson exclaims, “Right now, I'm thinking about going over to Spain to compete in the Race of Champions and then heading to New York for the banquet to celebrate our top-five points finish."