CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Jimmie Johnson knew he wasn't leaving Hendrick Motorsports, even as questions began to swirl when negotiations on an extension stretched deep into the final year of his contract.
All that speculation was for naught: Rick Hendrick has locked the six-time champion and sponsor Lowe's into a 2-year contract extension that runs through the 2017 season. The deal announced Monday comes as Johnson prepares for the opening race of NASCAR's playoffs, and he seemed amused that his possible free agency "caught some buzz" throughout the industry as negotiations continued.
"In my heart, Hendrick is my home, Lowe's is my sponsor and I certainly hope it stays this way until the day I quit driving," Johnson told The Associated Press.
In addition to the extensions for Johnson and Lowe's, crew chief Chad Knaus had previously inked a new three-year deal through the 2018 season.
It solidifies a powerhouse team that has been together since Lowe's came aboard in 2001 when Hendrick formed the No. 48 specifically for Johnson. The company had been involved in NASCAR at various sponsorship levels for decades, but was persuaded by Hendrick to take a chance on an unproven driver in a new fourth team for the organization.
Lowe's was on the car when Johnson ran three Cup races in 2001, and the nucleus of driver, sponsor and crew chief has been together since Johnson's 2002 rookie season.
The partnership has produced six championships and 74 victories in 14 seasons. Johnson, who will make his 500th career start later this month, is seeking a record-tying seventh championship in this year's playoffs. The Chase begins Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway and Johnson is tied with two others for the top seed in the 16-driver field.
It's a payoff Lowe's never saw coming.
So unsure of Johnson's future, the company initially hedged its bets with Hendrick and signed on as an associate sponsor for Jeff Gordon in case Johnson was a bust and Lowe's needed Gordon as a brand ambassador.
"We very quickly dropped that associate sponsorship on the 24 car as unneeded. We never needed that contingency plan," Tom Lamb, chief marketing officer at Lowe's, told AP. "I think we took a really big gamble on Jimmie Johnson when they first brought him to us, and the reality is we absolutely feel like we won the lottery."
Johnson won the pole as a rookie for his first Daytona 500, and was in victory lane in the 10th race of the season. His 2002 campaign produced three wins, a fifth-place finish in the standings and a star in the making for NASCAR. Johnson's first of five consecutive titles came in 2006, and he quickly surpassed teammate Gordon as the most dominant driver of the decade.
Along the way, he helped Lowe's establish its brand, then helped grow awareness of the Kobalt line and is currently part of Lowe's push to gain recognition for its ProServices department.
So with all parties so pleased with the arrangement, what took so long to get a deal done?
Part of the negotiations this time around included Johnson receiving a stake in Hendrick's automotive arm.
The team owner has done similar deals with Terry Labonte, Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr., all coming in as partners with Hendrick on dealerships. Johnson currently has his name on one dealership, Jimmie Johnson's Kearny Mesa Chevrolet in San Diego, but will increase his portfolio as part of the new extension.
"That's income-producing for life," Hendrick told AP. "Jeff's involved in three or four (dealerships), and that's income. I've got Earnhardt involved, and we're going to expand Jimmie's deal. When they retire, they like cars, they can be involved if they want to, but it's a business that I know and I can run it and they can be a partner in it and continue on."
This newest contract is far shorter than previous ones signed by Johnson, who said his preference is long-term deals. He indicated the shorter terms on this extension are tied more to getting a deal that all parties could agree upon than it did his desire to reassess his future in the next two seasons.
Johnson turns 40 on Thursday, and the father of two young daughters said he's got no interest right now in walking away from racing. Gordon, his original mentor and the one who brought Johnson to Hendrick, is retiring at the end of the season.
"It's wild, I'm 40 this year, Jeff's retiring at 43 and there's a lot of guys in their 40s who are all starting to plan the next two or three years," Johnson said. "I guess it's out there someday for me, but it's not on my radar yet. I would assume after '17, I'll have to start planning at that point. But full steam ahead right now."