Jimmie Johnson recalls fond Auto Club memories, 'big exhale' after first Cup victory

Jimmie Johnson had the good fortune and talent to score 83 victories during the course of his NASCAR Cup Series career. He still carries deeply fond recollections about his first — which came nearly 21 years ago in his home state — and the memorable celebration that came with it.

The seven-time champion made his first entry into the Cup Series win column on April 28, 2002, at what was then called California Speedway. The 2-mile Fontana track — now called Auto Club Speedway — is the site of this Sunday’s Pala Casino 400 (3:30 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio), the second race of the Cup Series season.

RELATED: Auto Club weekend schedule | Latest Auto Club odds

The victory was not just a homecoming affair, but the moment also helped validate Hendrick Motorsports’ and team co-owner Jeff Gordon’s decision to stamp Johnson as a rising star in its new No. 48 Chevrolet ride after a moderately successful Xfinity Series tenure. For Johnson, it provided him with a sense of security that would last for two more decades.

“So to cross the finish line and win, the big exhale that I had when I finally crossed the finish line was really more about knowing I’d be employed,” Johnson said as part of a series of NASCAR 75th anniversary interviews. “Jeff just won the championship the year before in this equipment that I was driving that day, and the team, they never put that pressure on me, but in my heart, I felt like if I didn’t win, I wasn’t going to be back in ’03. So to win 10 races into my rookie season, 13th race ever, that was a huge moment, and I felt like I’d keep the job for a few years.”

Johnson had already started strong in his rookie campaign before Auto Club arrived on the 2002 schedule. He landed his first pole position in the season-opening Daytona 500 and followed that performance with another pole (at Talladega) and six top-10 finishes in the first nine races.

Heading home to Southern California came at the right time.

Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson celebrate in Victory Lane at Auto Club Speedway in 2002
Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson celebrate in Victory Lane at Auto Club Speedway in 2002

“Of course, I’m back home, first time there as a Cup driver, friends, family in the stands,” Johnson recalled. “I think we stopped through San Diego, see some people and hit my favorite taco stand before I went up to the race. Just a good check-in at home. I hadn’t been there in a while, so to have all that energy and excitement to go to the race track, to perform and run well all race long.”

Even with his early season momentum and that energetic vibe, Johnson recalls that his No. 48 Monte Carlo wasn’t the fastest car that day. He led 62 of the 250 laps, but the top front-runner was Kurt Busch, who led a race-high 102 in the Jack Roush-owned No. 97 Ford.

The outcome boiled down to a bold late-race strategy call by young crew chief Chad Knaus, who opted for fuel only while Busch’s team changed two tires in the final pit stop.

“I’ll never forget being off the front of the field and leading that thing,” Johnson said, “knowing that Kurt was going to be there at some point and somewhere near the end of that stint, I had a sense of understanding that, that’s as close as he was going to get. …

“I had track position, the track was paved not long before that. So the groove was kind of moving around in some different spots, and I recall finding a nice lane in the middle of the track … and just trying to be sure I didn’t mess it up, it was 5 or 10 to go, I really felt like it was my race to win. And having that pressure of your first win, your home track and not throw it away was all riding on my shoulders.”

WATCH: Full-race replay: Auto Club, 2002

After leading the final 14 green-flag laps to the end, that big exhale came with a burnout and a first visit to Victory Lane. The celebration extended beyond the “boom, confetti” moments and post-race press conference. At Gordon’s suggestion, a road trip was involved.

“When I look back, this was that window of time where personally there wasn’t a lot going on for Jeff or myself,” said Johnson, who was 26 at the time. “We weren’t married, we didn’t have kids. He looked at me and said, ‘We should probably go to Los Angeles tonight.’ I said, ‘That’s a great idea.’

“So he had rented a motor home to use for the weekend and talked the motor driver into filling the bus up full of my team and some various friends we had in the area. And once my media obligations finished up, west we went, ran up the Interstate 10 to Los Angeles and we were definitely out of place, but we had a big time. It was a lot of fun.”

It also helped forge what’s been a long-lasting friendship between the two. Gordon was a key investor in Johnson’s team and his career at Hendrick Motorsports, where the four-time Cup champ is now the organization’s vice chairman. Their bond, however, reached beyond the formation of their business partnership.

“So there’s just this crazy conversion of personal and professional life coming together, and when I look back on it, just how much fun we had,” Johnson said. “I mean, life was so simple and so basic — free kids just traveling the country, driving race cars on the weekends and going off to cool places after that. So I look back and think that was certainly a special period of time personally and professionally.”