Pocono NASCAR Race Marks Milestone for Jimmie Johnson

The seven-time champion will make NASCAR start 600 Sunday in the Gander Outdoors 400.

Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Coca-Cola 600
Sarah Crabill—Getty Images

When the green flag waves for the start of the Gander Outdoors 400 at Pocono Raceway on Sunday, it’ll mark the 600th NASCAR Cup Series start for Jimmie Johnson. To say Johnson has achieved a lot since making his first career start in the series for Hendrick Motorsports at Charlotte Motor Speedway in October 2001 would be a gross understatement. But back then, Johnson wasn’t the sure bet he has seemed to be in years since.

“I was in my own weird mental space of wondering if I was ready for Cup or not,” Johnson told The Associated Press.

Johnson made three Cup Series starts in 2001 before going full-time in the series the next season. Chad Knaus has been Johnson’s crew chief since that first full-time season of 2002, but he wasn’t the first crew chief for the soon-to-be superstar. Ken Howes called the shots for Johnson in those first three races.

“If anybody stood up at that time stood up and said, ‘Hey, this guy’s going to win seven championships,’ they’d probably send you to a drug test,” Howes said, according to the same AP article. “Your hope was that he had talent, he would gain experience and go on to become a good competitive driver. Win some races each year and kind of start there. Perhaps challenge for a championship.”

But with Knaus atop the pit box, Johnson did go on to win seven Cups, tying NASCAR Hall of Famers Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt for most all-time. Those seven include five-straight between 2006 and 2010, also a record. His first 599 races in the series also include 83 trips to victory lane, tying him with another Hall of Famer, Cale Yarborough, for sixth on the all-time wins list. It’s no wonder Johnson is already considered one of the best all-time and is, certainly, a future first-ballot NASCAR Hall of Famer.

Johnson, though, isn’t finished yet, and neither is Knaus, for that matter. Last year, the driver signed a three-year extension to keep him behind the wheel of the No. 48 through the 2020 season. Recently, Knaus signed for another two years, bringing his contract to the same deadline as Johnson’s. One member of the No. 48 party will be missing after 2018, though. Lowe’s, which has been the primary sponsor for all of Johnson’s 599 starts so far, and will still be on board through the remainder of 2018, has announced its departure at season’s end.

The first 20 races of 2018 have been a struggle for Johnson and company. The No. 48 just has two top-fives so far this season, the best showing being a third at Bristol Motor Speedway in Tennessee. But such has been the case for Chevrolet as the manufacturer adjusts to its new Camaro. More specifically, Hendrick Motorsports has struggled mightily, at least by HMS standards, since about the midway point of the 2017 season. Johnson’s latest win came at Dover International Speedway in Delaware more than a year ago, in June 2017, in the 13th race of that 36-race season.

Team 48 is a three-time winner at Pocono, but its last win there was back in 2013, five years ago.