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Hendrick: Johnson lightning in bottle

Jimmie Johnson speaks at the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series awards ceremony on Friday. (Associated Press)
Jimmie Johnson speaks at the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series awards ceremony on Friday. (Associated Press)

LAS VEGAS – Rick Hendrick remembers the stress-filled days in 2001 when he was trying to launch a new team with an unproven driver.

He had an interested sponsor in Lowe’s, but wasn’t sure he could sell the company built around a 25-year-old nobody who had four top-five finishes in an underwhelming Nationwide Series career.

So Hendrick called in Jeff Gordon for help in sealing the deal on Jimmie Johnson, the driver Gordon had noticed on the track and brought to the team owner’s attention.

“I was scared to death when I went to talk to Lowe’s the first time about Jimmie – could he win?” Hendrick recalled. “We had to get Jeff to go make appearances for Lowe’s in the beginning. We were doing everything we had to do in the beginning to make that deal work.”

Lowe’s signed off on Johnson, and Hendrick pulled former Hendrick Motorsports mechanic Chad Knaus back into the organization for the crew chief job on the brand new No. 48 Chevrolet. Twelve seasons later, the duo was looking forward to collecting the hardware for their sixth championship in Friday night’s awards ceremony at Wynn Las Vegas.

“I don’t take any credit for it,” Hendrick said. “Sometimes it just happens. We were able to put something together that turned out to be lightning in a bottle.”

Johnson has won 66 races since Hendrick paired him with Knaus for the start of the 2002 season. They reeled off an unprecedented five consecutive Cup titles from 2006 through 2010, and after a two-year hiatus they captured No. 6 to put Johnson behind only Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt’s record seven titles.

“I know the pairing of us, there’s something magical there and it works,” Johnson said. “I say this confidently: I would not have the success I’ve had in this sport if it wasn’t for Chad and our relationship together.”

Knaus trails only Hall of Fame crew chief Dale Inman, who won eight championships – seven with Petty and one with Terry Labonte. He steadfastly refuses to compare himself to Inman, or consider where he might rank among NASCAR’s greatest crew chiefs.

“I’m not even close to what he’s done, so there’s no reason to even talk about that,” Knaus said. “I think Dale, until we get seven (championships), then maybe we can start to develop that parallel or draw those comparisons. But right now? No. Dale’s the man. He’s done some pretty impressive stuff.”