NASCAR hasn’t had back-to-back Cup champions since Jeff Gordon accomplished the feat during the 1997 and ’98 seasons. With the 2007 campaign under way it’s Gordon’s teammate, Jimmie Johnson, who is out to make it two for two.
Johnson was a model of consistency once the Chase for the Nextel Cup began, and the result was his first title in stock car racing’s premiere division.
“It’s an amazing feeling to be able to be a champion,” Johnson says. “It’s something I always wanted to be, worked my whole career to get to this point.”
Johnson also realizes there are other goals to accomplish in what he hopes is a long career.
“I guess the second time is really something that I’m looking at,” he says.
Although it’s hard to imagine a time when Johnson struggled, like most racers he had growing pains while working his way through the ranks.
“I remember coming through all the different levels,” Johnson says. “I only spent two years in any division. I was on a fast pace moving through the different classes, vehicles, from dirt to asphalt, on and on.
“I really didn’t start peaking until I got into Cup. There’s been points along the way here where I thought, ‘Wow, if it all ended tomorrow without the championship, I’ve had an amazing, amazing career, so much to be thankful for.’ As the years go by, things keep getting sweeter, better, more success keeps coming. It’s just been an amazing ride.”
Johnson’s Cup career began in 2001 when he ran three races for Hendrick Motorsports.
“At that point I was just worried about making an event,” he says. “Those three races were a chance for me to get my feet wet. As the rookie season started, I knew deep down inside that I needed to win a race, I needed to make my mark in that 48 car, especially with Jeff coming off of a championship season.”
Facing adversity during the 2006 season paved the way to his first title, Johnson admits.
Not only did Johnson claim the sport’s biggest prize last season, he also was victorious at its two biggest events – the Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400.
“The high that you’re on from winning a race is short-lived,” Johnson says. “I get an entire year of riding this high. I’m going to enjoy every damn day of it.”
Just how different is it to be a champion instead of the runner-up?
“There’s no comparison,” Johnson says. “There’s a lot of motivation being runner-up and being so close to it, especially sitting through the banquet, watching the champion experience all the great things, sit on stage. I think anybody with a competitive spirit wants that to be them.”
In December of last year, Johnson finally was the center of attention. And throughout the remainder of the 2007 schedule, he will remain the champion 42 other drivers are hoping to dethrone.