FORT WORTH, Texas - Jeff Gordon was on the verge of winning his fourth NASCAR championship as a driver when he made his debut as a co-owner and teammate for an unproven driver named Jimmie Johnson.
The two drivers have become good friends in the eight years since Johnson joined Hendrick Motorsports, with Gordon spending many hours explaining the finer points of stock car racing and offering plenty of advice to his eager pupil.
That investment of time has paid off, but also come at a price.
As Johnson closes in on an unprecedented fourth consecutive Sprint Cup title, he remains the biggest roadblock to Gordon's quest to win a fifth title.
Despite a crash last weekend at Texas that led to a 38th-place finish, Johnson still has a firm grip on the Chase for the championship with a 73-point lead over Hendrick teammate Mark Martin.
While Gordon would enjoy winning another championship as a co-owner, it isn't what keeps him driving the No. 24 car.
"It seems like 20 years ago," he said of winning his last championship in 2001.
And as in many of those years since then, Gordon is once again chasing Johnson's No. 48.
Gordon was the runner-up to Johnson in the 2007 title chase by 77 points. This year he is 112 points back in third place after finishing 13th at Texas, where he was the polesitter nearly seven months after he had won there for the first time. Given Johnson's crash, Gordon called his showing on Sunday a "total missed opportunity."
While the two are still friends and teammates, Gordon recently acknowledged that the competitive nature of their relationship has affected their friendship.
Gordon went on to say they would be better friends in 15 or 20 years, presumably when both are done racing.
"There's no doubt that over the last few years competition has been more intense. We've been racing for championships," Johnson said. "It was a lot easier when I was a rookie needing assistance and help. We spent a lot of time together then. I guess we were both single and not married at that point, too, having a lot of fun."
A year before his Cup debut, Johnson was stuck in what was then the Busch series, the predecessor to Nationwide, when by chance he sat next to Gordon at a drivers' meeting.
Needing advice on his next career step, he mustered the courage to ask Gordon if they could talk. What he didn't know was that just days earlier Gordon and team owner Rick Hendrick had talked about finding a young driver to field another team.
When their partnership became official with Johnson racing three times at the end of the 2001 season, Gordon already had 58 of his 82 career victories. He is one behind Cale Yarborough for fifth on the career list, and two behind Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip, who are tied for third.
Gordon and Johnson both won three races in 2002, and again in 2003 before a shift began.
Since the start of 2004, when Johnson won eight races and Gordon five, Johnson has won 40 races - 16 more than Gordon. The margin is 13-1 over the past two years.
"I think we still have a very strong friendship. He's probably right in the respect that as competitive as we are, what we're racing for, what we're both trying to accomplish in our professional careers, it does strain the friendship side," Johnson said. "I'm not sure if strain is the correct word. There's less focus on the personal side and the friendship side. It's more of a working relationship."
Until Johnson's current championship streak with crew chief Chad Knaus, there hadn't really been a dominating duo like that since Gordon and Ray Evernham won 47 races and three Cup championships (1995, 1997-98). Gordon's 2001 title came with crew chief Robbie Loomis.
"I see the similarities how well they click, how well the team performs. No doubt about that," Gordon said. "Those guys are obviously the best out here in this garage right now. Their results speak for themselves. The roll they've been on certainly reminds me of the roll we were on with the DuPont Chevrolet back in the mid- to late '90s."
While both are fierce competitors, and their relationship and personal lives have definitely changed over the past eight years, Johnson insists that there "isn't any issues with our friendship" and, more importantly, that they both still respect each other.
"As a young guy coming in, I think he being the veteran, the wiser one of the two of us, more experienced, depending on how he handled things would set up how I would react and act myself," Johnson said. "I looked to him for so many things."
In another sign that Gordon taught him well, Johnson knows that he won't always stay on top like he has for nearly four consecutive seasons.
"At some point I won't be that guy. It will be somebody else. Somebody else will be doing it. I've always been aware of those things through my career," Johnson said. "When that day comes, I hope I can handle it as well as the guys I've respected growing up have, because it won't be easy."