Rear-View Mirror: The 2002 NAPA Auto Parts 500 at California Speedway; Johnson Grabs First Cup Win

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FONTANA, Calif. — Column by Race Chaser Online Correspondent Ethan Butler — NASCAR photo —

When the NASCAR Winston Cup series pulled in to California Speedway (now Auto Club Speedway) for the 10th race of the 2002 season, everyone had their eyes on the veterans: Jeff Gordon, Dale Jarrett, Rusty Wallace and the like.

No one expected a rookie to rise to the occasion.

But, in a heavily strategic race that saw many comers and goers, one of those red hot rookie sensations would do just that — scoring his first Winston Cup victory thanks to a gutsy call from his crew chief.

Rookie Ryan Newman led the field to green in his No. 12 Mobil 1 Ford for Penske Racing South, with a pole speed of 187.432 mph, but had a mirror full of Kurt Busch’s No. 97 Rubbermaid Ford as soon as the green flag fell on the first lap. Busch would nip Newman at the line to lead lap one, but Newman swiped the lead back and brought Dale Jarrett’s No. 88 UPS Ford with him into second place.

On lap six, Jarrett decided to have his turn at the top spot, passing Newman for the lead. Both rookies, Newman and then-unknown California native Jimmie Johnson, would engage in a torrid battle over the next several laps for second position.

On lap 23, just as Michael Waltrip’s No. 15 NAPA Auto Parts Chevrolet took the lead from Jarrett’s fading car, Shawna Robinson’s No. 49 white unsponsored Dodge slammed the outside turn four wall, bringing out the first caution. All the leaders would hit pit road under caution, but Johnson took only two tires and put himself out front for the restart. Among others taking two tires were Rusty Wallace, Kevin Harvick, and Ricky Craven.

The race took on a long green-flag look after that as most of the cars that took two tires began to fade. Johnson’s car, however, stayed planted at the front. By lap 57, Busch, one of the Fords who took on four fresh tires, had worked his way from 10th on the restart to second.

Green flag pit stops began on lap 65. Leaders Busch and Johnson would both take four tires, but it would be Busch who would reclaim the lead after the stops cycled through.

On lap 110, round two of green flag stops began. Not much changed up front, with Busch and Johnson both taking on four fresh tires and maintaining their positions. Then-points leader Sterling Marlin had quietly climbed his way up inside the top five as well through the first half of the race, holding a solid station when halfway rung on the 125th round.

Busch had built his lead over Johnson up to 17 seconds when the second caution of the day flew on lap 142 for Ricky Craven, who shredded a tire and met the outside wall in turn two. The field hit pit road again for four tires and this time, Jarrett beat both Johnson and Busch off of pit road the take the lead.

Jarrett brought the field down for the restart on lap 147, but the yellow quickly came out again on lap 156 when Matt Kenseth’s No. 17 Dewalt Ford got up out of the groove and tagged the outside wall in turn two.

Pit road was busy under the third yellow of the afternoon — this time with about half of the leaders gambling and taking two new right side tires with just ten laps on their left sides. Dave Blaney’s No. 77 Jasper Engines Ford stayed out, followed by two tire calls for Marlin, Wallace, Busch, and Johnson. Jarrett took four tires and fell back to seventh.

After the restart, Blaney actually held his own up front and led for 27 laps, but Busch eventually tracked him down and took the lead back on lap 184. However, 12 laps after the lead change, Jeremy Mayfield would bring out the fourth caution when his No. 19 Dodge stalled on the track.

Pit road was busy once again, as Jarrett’s pit crew showed their muscles by getting the No. 88 off pit road first in front of Busch. Ricky Rudd in the No. 28 Havoline Ford suddenly appeared up front, as he would restart third in front of Wallace.

On the restart, the field was cluttered. Gordon’s No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet didn’t pit, and was on the tail end of the lead lap hoping for a caution. Jarrett had to back off of the throttle and look for a way around Gordon, and in doing so, Busch went by for the lead as three- and four-wide racing ensued. Busch got held up by lapped cars on the next lap as Jarrett sliced down to the bottom to reclaim the top spot.

At that point, Rudd decided it was ‘go time’, and made a bold three wide move on the backstretch to get by Blaney and Busch for second.

“Boys this is what you call ‘Showtime’,” exclaimed FOX broadcaster Darrell Waltrip.

Rudd began to close in on his Robert Yates Racing teammate Jarrett, bringing third and fourth place Busch and Blaney in tow. The lapped car of Johnny Benson in the No. 10 Maxlite Auto Oil Pontiac was in front of Jarrett, with all the leaders sniffing a draft from him. Busch slipped by Rudd for second, and Blaney began to work on getting by Rudd. With all this jostling going on, fifth-running Johnson was the fastest car on the track and closing fast.

Johnson caught the lead group with 35 to go and blew the doors off of fourth place Blaney as he made the pass. Five laps later, Busch dove under Jarrett to take the lead, and suddenly, Johnson was third as Jarrett fell back.

Just as Johnson got to Busch’s back bumper to challenge for the lead, the first serious incident of the day occurred. As Kevin Harvick made an attempt to get on pit road off of turn four, he clipped Dale Earnhardt Jr.in the right rear quarter panel. Earnhardt’s car was sent directly into the outside wall, driver’s side first, and the impact was ferocious.

“I popped a left rear tire going into turn three,” explained Harvick. “About the last save I had to make, I hit the 8 car and he hit the wall. I think he’s alright though, just glad everyone’s okay.”

Earnhardt suffered a severe concussion from the accident, but did not miss any races in the 2002 season. He did not admit to sustaining the injury until mid-September.

The leaders hit pit road for the final stop of the day. It was ‘money time’ for these pit crews. Gas only was the call for Johnson, as Rudd, Jarrett, Busch, and Blaney took two tires.

Bill Elliott did not pit and led the field down for the final restart of the day with 15 to go. Elliott pulled the field down into turn one, but Johnson came off the high side in turn two like a rocket and took the lead. Rudd was in hot pursuit, filling up Johnson’s rear view mirror lap after lap. Johnson was constantly weaving back and forth on the straightaways, trying to shake Rudd from his slipstream, but both of them were being reeled in the man who had led the most laps all day: Kurt Busch.

Johnson slowly began to pull away and Busch slowly began to reel in Rudd for second inside of 10 to go. With five trips around remaining, Steve Grissom’s No. 45 Braun Dodge slammed the wall in turn two. No caution was shown initially, but TV cameras picked up on a brake rotor laying towards the bottom groove of the backstretch. Grissom made it back to pit road safely, but the caution could’ve flown at any moment for the brake rotor. The drivers were well aware of this, and were treating every lap like it was the last one.

Busch slipped by Rudd for second with three to go and was driving his car like he stole it trying to catch Johnson. By the time the white flag flew, the lead was only four tenths of a second, with Busch driving in the corners deep and Johnson pulling away on corner exit.

Johnson, driving like a seasoned veteran, would hit his marks perfectly on the last lap and score his first career Winston Cup victory in front of his home crowd. It was a true Cinderella moment, and the start of something special.

Chad Knaus made a bold strategy call late in the race to put Johnson in a position to win, and Johnson took advantage. Sound familiar? It happened in his most recent win at Atlanta in February.

“Our car was handling great all day, the only thing that ever hurt us was lapped traffic,” said Knaus. “We got back there a little bit, but Jimmie drove that son of a gun right back up there.”

When asked how special the win was, Knaus replied: “When I moved down here in 1991, I wanted to be a crew chief. A lot of people told me ‘No way; you shouldn’t do it … it’s too much work or you couldn’t do it’, but I guess we proved them wrong.”

Johnson climbed atop his Lowes Chevrolet in victory lane. With the confetti flying, crowd going nuts, and adrenaline pumping, the El Cajon, California driver jumped into the arms of his pit crew.

“This is unbelievable, I know my dad is sitting a home going crazy. Wish you were here dad — it figures you don’t come to the race and we win the dang thing,” joked Johnson. “This is awesome dude, (to win at) California in front of my hometown. These guys back here believe in me.”

Auto Club Speedway is a special track for Johnson, not only because he calls it home but because the first win for any driver is always unforgettable.

On Sunday, Johnson has a chance to move past Dale Earnhardt with his 77th career win at the same place he scored his first — potentially bringing everything full-circle at home.

And trust me, if he finds a way to pull that off, it will be nothing short of monumentally special.

The opinions expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views of Race Chaser Online, Speed77 Radio, the Performance Motorsports Network, their sponsors or other contributors.

 

RESULTS: NASCAR Winston Cup Series; NAPA Auto Parts 500; California Speedway; April 28, 2002

  1. Jimmie Johnson
  2. Kurt Busch
  3. Ricky Rudd
  4. Bill Elliott
  5. Mark Martin
  6. Dale Jarrett
  7. Sterling Marlin
  8. Rusty Wallace
  9. Dave Blaney
  10. Michael Waltrip
  11. Jeff Green
  12. Robby Gordon
  13. Greg Biffle
  14. Ryan Newman
  15. Johnny Benson
  16. Jeff Gordon
  17. Kyle Petty
  18. Ward Burton
  19. Jeff Burton
  20. Matt Kenseth
  21. Terry Labonte
  22. Steve Park
  23. Brett Bodine
  24. John Andretti
  25. Joe Nemechek
  26. Jerry Nadeau
  27. Jimmy Spencer
  28. Casey Atwood
  29. Tony Stewart
  30. Bobby Hamilton
  31. Mike Skinner
  32. Rick Mast
  33. Steve Grissom
  34. Bobby Labonte
  35. Kevin Harvick
  36. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
  37. Ricky Craven
  38. Jeremy Mayfield
  39. Elliott Sadler
  40. Hut Stricklin
  41. Stacy Compton
  42. Shawna Robinson
  43. Ken Schrader

 

About the Writer

Ethan “Speedy” Butler is Race Chaser Online’s Plains Region correspondent, residing in West Burlington, Iowa — just down from Knoxville Raceway, the ‘Sprint Car Capital of the World’ — and aiding in the site’s sprint car databanks from ‘The Heartland of America’.

Butler has always had a passion for auto racing, going back to his younger years “playing with toy cars and trying to figure out how to get them to go faster”. He is both an avid dirt track and NASCAR fan, who spends his time away from home at one of the many local dirt tracks in the area, out on the lake fishing, or in the shop shaping up his next woodworking project. In 2015, he spent time as a marketing intern and flagman at 34 Raceway, one of the charter tracks for the FVP National Sprint League founded by Tod Quiring.

Butler is currently pursuing a bachelor’s degree in marketing at the University of Northern Iowa.

Email Ethan at: egbutler@scciowa.edu

Follow on Twitter: @SpeedyButler

Email Race Chaser Online: news@racechaseronline.com

Follow RCO on Twitter: @RaceChaserNews

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