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Published: Friday, 6/15/2007

Hendrick garage is star-filled

BY MATT MARKEY
BLADE SPORTS WRITER
Jeff Gordon, right, and Jimmie Johnson are the stars for Henrick, but they'll be sharing the spotlight with Dale Earnhardt. Jeff Gordon, right, and Jimmie Johnson are the stars for Henrick, but they'll be sharing the spotlight with Dale Earnhardt.
RUSS HAMILTON / AP Enlarge

BROOKLYN, Mich. - With his team looking more and more like the New York Yankees of stock car racing, Nextel Cup's defending champion Jimmie Johnson faces the challenge of trying to be the MVP of that growing gaggle of all-stars.

Johnson, who comes into Michigan International Speedway for Sunday's Citizens Bank 400 ranked fourth in the points standings, learned this week that series icon Dale Earnhardt Jr. will be joining Hendrick Motorsports, where Johnson and four-time Cup champion and current points leader Jeff Gordon already reside.

Johnson, who along with Gordon lead the series with four wins each this season, said Hendrick has the climate to make it all work. The current team also features Casey Mears, who got his first win a few weeks ago, and Kyle Busch, who also has a victory this season but will be leaving the Hendrick stable at the conclusion of 2007.

"I think [Earnhardt's] going to fit in well," Johnson said. "I think it's really important to make sure all four teammates are pulling in the same direction and that we are all working for the same goals. I think Junior has made that commitment to the team. It's something he's looking forward to. He wants that team camaraderie. He wants the opportunity to win races and championships."

Johnson, who was second in the championship points race in 2004, finishing just eight points behind champ Kurt Busch in the closest Cup title chase in history, has finished in the top five in points in all five of his full seasons in NASCAR's elite series. He said the Hendrick garage has demonstrated that it can accommodate a lot of stars.

"When you have four winning teams like we do, we've had that challenge of 'are there too many successful drivers in one place,' "

Johnson said. "I think we've already proven that if there is a team that can deal with it, Hendrick Motorsports would be one of them."

Johnson said team owner Rick Hendrick doesn't try and make his drivers fit a certain mold or conform to a specific pattern, and that allows them to succeed as individuals while working together as teammates.

"Even though we are teammates and we share everything, that part is set in stone," he said. "We have four different drivers with four different personalities. We're all able to be who we are and what we are. Rick doesn't regulate us. He lets us all be ourselves. I think we're all going to be helpful to one another."

Johnson expects Earnhardt Jr., who joins the team for the 2008 season, to enhance the relationships on the team and provide another valuable resource of racing experience and knowledge.

"Just being around Jeff Gordon, I've learned so much about the sport and how to handle myself and things by working with him," Johnson said.

"I'm sure Junior will learn some from Jeff, and we'll learn some from Junior. When you're in a teammate situation, you've got to learn how to deal with these things. And I think Rick's organization is a place where people really can spread their wings."

Hendrick said adding Earnhardt to the mix will just expand the internal competition, which gets pretty intense between Johnson and Gordon but has always stayed civil. He also expects Junior's huge fan base to be looking for immediate results.

"I've been through this before where if Jimmie wins, Jeff's fans say I don't give him the good equipment," Hendrick said.

"So I'm sure in this situation, if [Earnhardt's] not winning, it's going to be my fault. That pressure is there. But again, he's such an icon in the sport, and he made a decision to come with us based on our performance and ability to give him what he needs to reach those goals. So that's the competitive side of me that adds pressure that I want to deliver what we said we could deliver and what he's expecting."

Contact Matt Markey at:

mmarkey@theblade.com

or 419-724-6510.



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