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Jimmie Johnson and Herzog Motorsports, circa 2001
Jimmie Johnson finished in the top 10 in Busch points in 2000 and 2001. Credit: ISC

Before Hendrick, there was Herzog Motorsports

Johnson showed his promise in the ranks of ASA and Busch Series

By Rick Houston, Special to NASCAR.COM
December 7, 2006
01:38 PM EST (18:38 GMT)

From the time Jimmie Johnson and Tony Liberati first stepped into a garage stall together in 1999 until Johnson left to go Cup racing with Hendrick Motorsports at the end of the 2001 season, they were the Busch Series version of The Odd Couple.

Liberati is the gung ho former Marine who at one time carried the instruction manual for an M-60 machine gun in his brief case and one very mean-looking rifle in his pickup truck. His office looked more like that of a four-star general than Busch Series crew chief, with the United States flag on one side, the Marine Corps banner on the other and replica of the Iwo Jima Memorial front and center on his desk.

Jimmie Johnson celebrates at Chicago, circa 2001
Jimmie Johnson posted his only Busch victory driving for Herzog Motorsports. Credit: ISA
Inside the Numbers
Jimmie Johnson with Herzog
Year St. W T-5 T-10
1999 5 0 0 1
2000 31 0 0 6
2001 32 1 4 9
Career Busch Series stats
Starts 84
Wins 1
Top-5s 7
Top-10s 20
Poles 2
Avg. Start 17.7
Avg. Finish 18.4

To this day, he's better known as "Rambo" than Tony. There are probably at least 50 Tonys in the garage, but there's only one Rambo.

Ooooo-rah, indeed.

Johnson, on the other hand, was quiet and unassuming, certainly not a wallflower by any means, but no Rambo, either. He'd been hand-delivered to Herzog Motorsports by Herb Fishel, the executive director of GM Racing. He was a prodigy who rose with team owners Stan and Randy Herzog from off-road truck racing, through the American Speed Association ranks before landing together in the Busch Series.

Somehow, for all their differences, Johnson and Liberati seemed to click.

"I think we had real good communication," Liberati said. "I think we had a mutual respect for each other. I thought he could get it done, and he thought I was giving him the best stuff we could. We worked on it.

"If he thought we needed to do this or that, we did it, and if I told him he needed to drive this way or that way, he did it. We worked together, and we didn't have any feuds. We didn't throw stuff at each other. We just had a mutual respect. I respected him as a racecar driver, and he respected me as a crew chief."

Five years after they last worked with Johnson, brothers Stan and Randy Herzog today concentrate on their St. Joseph, Mo.-based companies, which specialize in the construction of, among other things, railroads, highways and airports. The Herzog Companies also serve as a major associate sponsor of the NHRA Nitro Funny Cars driven by Cruz and Tony Pedregon.

Liberati, meanwhile, is back in North Carolina and looking for a place to set his toolbox after parting ways with Brendan Gaughan's Las Vegas-based Craftsman Truck Series team at the end of the season.

And Johnson? Johnson is the 2006 Nextel Cup Series champion, and one of the biggest stars in the NASCAR universe.

Stan Herzog's earliest memory of Jimmie Johnson is of a teenaged kid, racing and winning in desert off-road buggy races on the Baja peninsula. There were a lot of special talents roaring across the sands of Mexico to be sure, but in Johnson especially, Herzog saw a youngster who was singularly primed.

"The kid had an exceptional driving ability, but when you take 200 racers, there's going to be several of them that do," Herzog said. "He did have the exceptional driving ability, but he also was a very driven young man. He was very focused on what he was doing, and that was to drive fast and win races.

"He also, I think, understood the bigger picture of racing, which was sponsorship, meeting the right people, doing the right things, presenting himself well off the track. He practiced and always strove to do the things that a championship-type driver had to do. He was well spoken. He didn't get in trouble. He didn't have a lot of nightlife."

How focused was Johnson? So focused that even then, he was practicing signing his autograph, signing it over and over for hours. It wasn't an exercise in vanity, either. Signing autographs would be just one of the expectations of a sponsor, and if that was part of the deal, that was part of the deal.

"He was just focused on one thing, and that was getting where he is today," Stan Herzog added. "Of course, you can't know you're going to do it, but that was always his goal from the first day that I ever really met him.

"I think he wanted to win a Cup championship in NASCAR (even at 16, 17, 18 years of age). ... He was just grooming himself for this one chance that he finally got."

The Herzogs built their racing operation around Johnson. Their first year in off-road truck racing, the Herzogs paid Johnson $12,000 and "he was happy to get it," according to Stan. After that, they had a five-year plan centered on eventually making it to Cup together -- two years in the American Speed Association, two years in the Busch Series and then on to the big cheese in Cup.

Johnson won ASA's rookie of the year honors in 1998, and the same year made the first three starts of his NASCAR career in the Busch Series, running two races for car owner Tad Geschickter and one for David Ridling.

Jimmie Johnson in the 92 Chevy, circa 2001
Jimmie Johnson drove the 92 Chevy for Herzog. Credit: ISC

"He got an apartment, he moved to Wisconsin, he worked on the car all night and he'd drive it on the weekends," Stan Herzog said. "Like I said, he was just the most focused kid I've ever seen.

"He was very good with people. He'd sign autographs until the last person was gone. He loves children. And he never got involved with the wrong group of guys. Around some of those racing circuits, there's kind of a wild bunch. But he never lost focus. He was always in bed, getting a good night's sleep. He just wanted to drive the racecar."

A year later, Johnson won two races and finished third in the ASA standings for the Herzogs. They also made their first steps into the Busch Series together, making a five-race trial run that began with a seventh-place finish at Milwaukee and ended with making the field for the last four events of the season.

They were ready for their first full-time shot at NASCAR competition in 2000. Johnson failed to qualify for the 2000 Busch Series season opener, but made every race thereafter. The team pieced together six top-10 finishes and wound up 10th in the standings at the end of the year.

"We all knew it was going to be difficult going in," Randy Herzog admitted. "It was probably even more difficult than we had thought, but having said that, I think with a rookie team, rookie owners, rookie crew chief, rookie driver, I thought we probably performed exceptionally well."

According to Rambo ... sorry ... Liberati, all good race teams depend on that great intangible, chemistry. He and Johnson had that mojo, despite being the polar opposites that they so obviously were.

"A lot of people say stuff's gonna be good or stuff's gonna be bad just from a personality standpoint," Liberati said. "Tony Stewart and Greg Zipadelli, I'd have to say that they're opposites. You've gotta yank stuff out of Zippy to talk to him, and Tony's the opposite. It's more of a chemistry thing than it is a personality thing."

Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon, circa 2002
Jeff Gordon celebrated Jimmie Johnson's first Cup victory at Fontana in 2002 Credit: ISA
Results
2000 NAPAonline.com 250
(at Michigan)
Pos. Driver Start
1. Todd Bodine 16
2. Michael Waltrip 9
3. Jeff Burton 6
4. Ward Burton 4
5. Mike McLaughlin 12
6. Jimmie Johnson 8
7. Jeff Gordon 25
8. Matt Kenseth 2
9. Kevin Harvick 3
10. Chad Little 11
• Complete results, click here

Legend holds that Johnson first approached Jeff Gordon for advice at the drivers' meeting prior to a 2000 Busch Series race at Michigan. What history doesn't always record is that the two went on to battle for position late in the race, with Johnson holding Gordon off for sixth place.

Now that ... that's the way to impress a potential boss.

Late in the season, it was announced that Johnson would join Hendrick Motorsports for a partial Cup schedule in 2001 then move full time to NASCAR's top circuit in 2002.

"He got the attention of Jeff Gordon," Liberati said. "He was talking to him a little bit there in Michigan, and then when the race started, we finished sixth and Gordon finished seventh. Gordon did all he could do to get around Jimmie, and he couldn't.

"Jimmie had a real loose racecar, and Gordon was pretty impressed that Jimmie -- I don't want to say outdrove him, but -- beat him. They got to talking and that was it."

The Herzogs had always known that Johnson was going to be a hot commodity. Still, Randy Herzog admits that there was a certain sense of disappointment when Johnson signed with Hendrick Motorsports.

"Oh, absolutely, a lot of disappointment," Randy Herzog said. "Disappointed ... but not angry. It wasn't that big a surprise. If Jimmie's abilities and capabilities were apparent to us, we knew it was apparent to other people as well. We knew that he was subject to being approached by several other major organizations. That's just part of the business."

When the offer from Hendrick came through, however, the Herzogs knew they simply weren't ready to go Cup racing and they weren't going to hold Johnson back. The brothers flew to North Carolina to meet with Rick Hendrick, and that was that. Johnson went on to drive the full Busch Series season for Herzog Motorsports in 2001, winning one race and finishing eighth in points, while making his Cup debut in three late-season starts for Hendrick.

Who knows how the course of racing history might've changed had the Herzogs played hardball and held Johnson to his contract. According to Stan Herzog, the only thing Herzog Motorsports requested in exchange for releasing Johnson from his contract was some technical assistance that would benefit both driver and team.

"We had always told Jimmie, even though we had signed him up to a long-term contract, if he ever had a chance to get to Winston Cup faster than our team could get there, we would welcome the opportunity for him and work with him," Stan Herzog said.

"Sure enough, he came to us one day and said that he'd had some contact with Rick and Jeff and they were offering him an opportunity in the Winston Cup Series. He still had some time left on our contract ... I think he had another year-and-a-half left.

Jimmie Johnson and Rick Hendrick, circa 2002
Jimmie Johnson won three races in his first full season with Hendrick Motorsports. Credit: ISA
Inside the Numbers
Jimmie Johnson's first three starts for Hendrick in 2001
Race Site Start Finish
29 Charlotte 15 39
34 Homestead 30 25
35 Atlanta 21 29
• DNF at Charlotte (crash)

"He said if we held him to that, that opportunity possibly would not be there. So my brother and I got on a plane, flew to Charlotte, met with Rick Hendrick and just said, 'We want to see what you're gonna do with the kid. We want to make sure you're not promising him something that's not going to work out for him.' Rick told us what he had in mind, and we said, 'Have at it. We'll let him out of his contract.' It was a very amicable thing, and Rick was a real gentleman about it. Jimmie was very professional."

Gordon wasn't the only one who noticed Johnson. There had been offers from other teams, and Johnson's negotiations were so out in the open, Liberati had expressed his opinion on which offers the driver should and shouldn't take.

"I came from the Cup garage to the Busch Series to take Jimmie back to Cup ... that's what I wanted to do," Liberati said. "He had some offers on the table, and we got into some heated discussions about some people that I didn't want him to go to, just from the experience I've had with the people. I can remember telling him his best deal wasn't even on the table yet.

"The Hendrick deal came up, and he said, 'What do you think about that?' and I said, 'You'd be stupid not to take it.' The rest is pretty much history. He was way too talented, way too young and way too good of a guy for people to pass up. He didn't think nothing like that was ever gonna happen. He just kept his head down and kept working."

After Johnson left, Herzog Motorsports hired Andy Houston to begin 2002, but replaced him with Todd Bodine just three races into the season. Bodine would score two more wins for the organization, but a lack of sponsorship forced it out of full-time competition in July 2003. Bodine had been atop the Busch Series standings by as much as 104 points earlier in the year.

Today, the company's associate sponsorship of the Pedregons is its only involvement in motorsports.

As for NASCAR?

Jimmie Johnson's Spongebob Squarepants paint scheme
Spongebob gets an examination. Credit: Autostock

"Sponsorship gives us something to be interested in," Randy Herzog says. "I think [coming back to NASCAR is] just something that's played itself out. We're still fans."

Johnson and Liberati reconnected in 2004 prior to a Busch Series race at Charlotte. Johnson showed Liberati's son, Alex, the Spongebob Squarepants-themed car he was driving in the event. Johnson was the same ol' Jimmie he's always been, superstar or not.

There is in some corners of the sport, however, a perception that Johnson is maybe a little too politically correct, a little too polished, that he doesn't say anything more than what's absolutely necessary. That's just not the case, Liberati insists. Johnson's persona isn't a put-on. It is who he is, nothing more, nothing less.

"I don't think he's changed a bit," Liberati said. "Jimmie Johnson as a person, that's just who he is, and that's who he's always been from the ASA days all the way through the Busch stuff.

"I believe 100 percent that's the way he is. I don't think he's got somebody telling him, 'Don't say this, don't say that. Don't do that, don't do this.' The people that say he's politically correct and does the right stuff have it right on the head, but it's not an act. He doesn't go in the house and start throwing stuff and calling people names."

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