Jimmie Johnson has to pinch himself to make sure he's in the real world.

Johnson, a blue-chip rookie, began his first full NASCAR Winston Cup season in February driving the No. 48 Chevrolet for a new Hendrick Motorsports team co-owned by Jeff Gordon and Rick Hendrick and sponsored by Lowe's Home Improvement Warehouse.

Most rookies could only fantasize about having four-time and reigning Winston Cup champion Gordon as his teammate and Hendrick as an owner, plus the vast resources of Hendrick Motorsports at his disposal. Hendrick's multiple teams have won five Winston Cup and three Craftsman Truck Series titles in the past eight years.

That Johnson signed his Winston Cup pact in September 2000 is all that really matters now, but how the deal came about is one for Ripley's.

For the past two seasons Johnson drove Chevrolets for Herzog Motorsports in the NASCAR Busch Grand National Series. In July of 2000, Alltel, the team's sponsor, announced it would not return in 2001. As a result, word traveled fast that Johnson might be available at the end of the season if no sponsor was signed. He began to receive a surprising number of overtures from Winston Cup, Busch and Truck series owners.

Though Herzog eventually signed Excedrin as sponsor for 2001, the uncertainty during the interim weighed heavily on Johnson. What should he do, how should he handle his situation? All he knew for sure is that if forced to make a change, he would stick with Chevrolet. He first hooked up with Chevrolet when he was 16 and Herb Fishel, General Motors' global racing chief, helped steer his career.

A Crazy Idea Johnson had what he calls a "crazy idea." Why not seek advice? How about Jeff Gordon, who had skyrocketed to fame and fortune and seemed to have done everything right, on and off the track?

Johnson didn't know Gordon beyond a hello. That was enough. At the drivers' meeting before the Busch race at Michigan Speedway in August 2000, someone sitting behind Johnson grabbed him by the shoulders and said "Hello." It was Gordon, who competed in selected Busch races. Johnson had been trying unsuccessfully for a time to work up enough nerve to ask Gordon for a few minutes of his time. This was his break.

Johnson asked Gordon to see him, and Gordon invited him to his hauler after the meeting. Johnson told Gordon he was seeking advice, but Gordon did most of the talking. To Johnson's utter surprise, Gordon told him that he and Hendrick were interested in him possibly driving for them down the road, and that Hendrick Motorsports planned to add a fourth Winston Cup team to be housed in a new facility with Gordon's four-time champion team; two cars, one team. Gordon went on and on, Johnson says, adding that he didn't want to build Johnson's hopes too high, but advised him to "hang tight."

Johnson was incredulous. "I can't describe my feelings when I walked out of that hauler," he says. "I had gone in there confused, wondering and searching for advice and had come out with the possibility of a ride with Jeff Gordon and Rick Hendrick. I was simply trying to look ahead, be smart at a young age and make sure I was going to have a ride in 2001. I wanted to stay with the Herzogs, but if anything happened to the team, I had to be prepared."

Not incidentally, Johnson beat his future boss in the race, finishing sixth, Gordon seventh.

Johnson had met Rick Hendrick at a Chevrolet function some six years earlier. Johnson and Hendrick's son, Ricky, a promising young driver who advanced from Craftsman Trucks to Busch this year, are friends who had met through racing. Johnson knew that Fishel in the past had spoken highly of him to Rick Hendrick. But they had said nothing to Johnson about a possible ride.

Gordon promptly informed Hendrick of his conversation with Johnson, and they decided to go after him immediately. In about a month, Johnson autographed the contract. In fact, his signing actually accelerated plans to get the new team on track for the full 2002 schedule.