Newly crowned Daytona 500 champion Jimmie Johnson has gotten little sleep since winning Sunday's season-opening NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race, but the blurry-eyed, five-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion showed why he remains one of the sport's top ambassadors during Wednesday's "Trip Down Victory Lane" luncheon at the House of Blues in Dallas.
Johnson, in the midst of a five-city Daytona 500 champion's tour, arrived to a throng of all the prominent Dallas/Fort Worth media outlets for an interview session and then visited with and posed for photographs with 100 fans that had VIP Experience packages before settling on stage for the formal portion of the program to celebrate his second Daytona 500 title. He was joined on stage by event emcee/host Krista Voda, part of FOX Sports' esteemed NASCAR pit reporters, for a 45-minute Q&A session to the delight of the audience of more than 200 guests.
Johnson arrived from two days of media appearances in Bristol, Conn. for ESPN and New York City for various national shows such as "Late Show with David Letterman" and "Good Morning America" before touching down in Dallas/Fort Worth for a 3�-hour visit with local media and fans. He was then whisked away to the airport as the tour continues with stops in Los Angeles and Las Vegas before arriving in Phoenix for this weekend's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race.
All in a day's work for the reigning Daytona 500 champion.
"I know what time zone I'm in; I was a little confused on days," Johnson said with a laugh. "I thought we were on Tuesday but it is clearly Wednesday. Not much sleep, some of that self-inflicted. It's been a very fun ride."
The ride, however, has a much different feel than when he won his first Daytona 500 title in 2006.
"When I won my first Daytona 500, I had not won a championship," Johnson said. "It was amazing and a lot went on, but I don't think the popularity was there like today. This is like winning a championship. I'm just as busy and there is just as much reach for myself, my sponsor, my team, as it did winning a championship. It is amazing the impact this single event has across our nation and in the world. It's a big, big deal.
"I'm really savoring the moment more and just enjoying it. I feel like I'm more mature today as a driver and somebody within the sport. I can appreciate this moment much more than in '06. I did all I could at the time, but seven years later a lot has changed. I'm very appreciative of what goes with it."
Johnson's attention this week has been away from race preparations unlike his traditional schedule. Johnson, scheduled to compete in both the Nationwide and Sprint Cup Series races this weekend at Phoenix, understands the challenges that will come with this weekend's races.
"It hasn't been at my mind at all," Johnson said. "We've been so occupied and busy. Tuesdays is normally the day I download with my team and talk about what happened at the races and then we move forward and prepare for the upcoming event. Then we go through that same thing with our teammates, their crew chiefs and the race engineers. I missed all of that yesterday so I feel a little removed and not really in the space to go racing in Phoenix. It's for a good reason. Chad (Knaus, Johnson's crew chief) is going to cut me some slack this week and I'm going to have to catch up on Friday when I get to the track."
One of the highlights of his Q&A session with the fans was a story that involved one of those Hendrick Motorsports teammates as well as TMZ that chases down celebrity news.
"I was in New York yesterday, and I get out of a car for an interview," Johnson tells the audience. "TMZ is standing there with a camera and the man asks the question that is the most annoying one I hear all the time which is, 'What do you have to do if you have to go to the bathroom?'
"So evidently I was on TMZ last night because just before I walked out this morning my phone was blowing up and (Dale Earnhardt) Junior texted me and said, 'You've never peed in your car before?' No, I haven't. Where did you see this? How did you know this? 'Well, I watched TMZ.'"
Johnson understands the momentum a victory in NASCAR's most prestigious race can provide a driver. His first Daytona 500 victory came in 2006, which coincidentally was the same season he earned the first of his five NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championships.
In 2006, he followed up his Daytona 500 victory with three wins in the first nine races, along with seven top-10 finishes during that span. His victory in Sunday's Daytona 500 has provided his Hendrick Motorsports team confidence moving forward. It is in stark contrast to last season when Johnson got caught up in an accident and finished 42nd in the 43-car field of the Daytona 500.
"We feel like we're going to start the season at the top of the class and we're excited about that," Johnson said. "Plate racing is so different than what it takes to win the championship. You've got to make the Chase and that is all on downforce tracks. You get into the Chase and you've got one plate-race track versus nine other downforce tracks. You can turn it in some directions. I have seen some teams and drivers win the (Daytona) 500 and you see four or five months later they haven't had such a great year. There's some type of hangover from the (Daytona) 500. Or it can be a springboard."
Winning the Daytona 500 has not translated into success at Texas Motor Speedway in the same season. In the 16-year history of Texas Motor Speedway, no Daytona 500 winner has gone on to visit Victory Lane at "The Great American Speedway!" in the same season.
While Johnson remains winless in April's Texas 500, he is no stranger to Victory Lane at Texas Motor Speedway. Johnson has two victories during the speedway's November Sprint Cup Series event, winning the AAA Texas 500 in 2007 and again last year. He remains one of the most consistent NASCAR Sprint Cup Series drivers at Texas Motor Speedway as he ranks second for career top-five finishes (9), top-10 finishes (14) and finishing average (9.26).
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