For nine seasons now, fans and drivers alike have witnessed the metallic blue blur that has been Jimmie Johnson dominating the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. During those seasons, Johnson has accumulated a resume that others spend their lifetimes trying to achieve.
Any driver would be content with just one of Johnson's many accomplishments. With fifty three victories, including one in the Daytona 500 and three in the Brickyard 400, and his four consecutive championships, what other highlights would a driver's resume need?
What few realize is that in each of those victories and, in fact, in each of those starts in the Cup series another driver has consistently edged him to the finish line. It is a driver who never had a chance to battle for race wins like Johnson. It is a driver with a name that few watching today would recognize.
That driver is Blaise Alexander.
On the car are a scribble of flames in black on blue, preceded by the initials BA. That inconspicuous scribble below the left headlight decal is reminder of how far Johnson has come and what he has lost along the way.
The week leading up to the fall 2001 race at Lowe's Motor Speedway was full of excitement for Johnson. A Busch Series career, most notable for a spectacular accident at Watkins Glen the year before, had elevated Johnson into his first Cup start with NASCAR juggernaut Hendrick Motorsports.
While Johnson prepped for his Cup debut one of his closest friends, Alexander, was also at the track practicing for the Friday night ARCA race. Alexander had 65 starts in the Busch Series over the past five years, yet was never able to capitalize on the talent he had. He found himself running a partial campaign in the ARCA series in 2001, notching himself a win in the July race at Michigan.
Alexander's Pontaic had proved just as quick this weekend, timing in fourth for the one hundred mile race. As the laps wound down, Alexander found himself challenging for the victory with Kerry Earnhardt, a fan favorite due to his father's untimely death during that season's Daytona 500. With a possible victory by Alexander, and Johnson making his first Cup start, it appeared certain to be an idyllic weekend for the two friends.
While battling side by side for the win, Earnhardt made contact with Alexander in the tri-oval sending both cars careening across the track. Earnhardt had the most spectacular crash, his car flipping over onto his roof and sliding along the length of the straightaway. While the views of fans gazed at the site of Earnhardt's inverted car, medical personal had surrounded Alexander.
Alexander's car had been turned a sharp left directly into the unprotected outside retaining wall. It was a crash eerily similar to the late Dale Earnhardt's fatal accident, and those who saw it waited with abated breath as workers attempted to extricate him from the car.
A short time later, Alexander was pronounced dead in the infield care center. At just twenty-five years of age, Alexander became the sixth driver in two years to die of a basilar skull fracture caused by an accident during a national motorsports event.
What was supposed to be the greatest weekend of their young careers ended up being one of the most tragic. Johnson's first start that weekend would be inconspicuous, as an accident just past the halfway point would lead to a 39th place finish.
Until that point in Johnson's career, he had been little more than a blip on the consciousness that is NASCAR. A lone win at Chicagoland Speedway earlier in the 2001 season provided a glimmer of what was to come. Who's to say Alexander's untimely death wasn't the catalyst which lead to the legend in the making we see today?
For every start, for every victory, for every championship, Alexander has been right there with him. Johnson has been memorializing his friend in numerous ways since that fateful day, yet the simplest is perhaps the most unknown. That little scribble with the little flames has propelled Johnson to the pinnacle of the sport.
In fact today it is not just a scribble, but a full-fledged decal on the car. Along with the initials of BA, the flight number N501RH resides next to it in honor of the tragic plane crash outside of Martinsville in October of 2004.
It is hard to see, even up close at times, but perhaps it's made to be that way. Sometimes the best way to honor someone is in obscurity. Alexander may never have had his chance to fight for a Cup championship, but in a way each of Johnson's four trophies is part his.
Is there any better way to honor your best friend than sharing your ultimate dream? For Johnson and Alexander, they are inseparable today as they were heading to Lowe's in October of 2001.
And there's no other way it should be.
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