LAS VEGAS -- Thousands of fans lined the sidewalks and skywalks along and above the famous Las Vegas Strip Thursday afternoon and even above the roar of 13 race cars, the cheers for NASCAR's newly-crowned six-time Sprint Cup Series champ Jimmie Johnson were unmistakable.
Given the incredible opportunity to ride shotgun with Johnson in his No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet for the "Victory Lap" portion of NASCAR's Champion's Week, it quickly became obvious to me the passion and loyalty goes both ways.
"It never gets old," Johnson said with a big grin as we took off down Las Vegas Boulevard for a mid-speed parade starring the 13 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers bookended with a pair of crowd-pleasing burnouts.
The only advice Johnson gave was a warning that I better be prepared when the jack came off the car on my side for a two-tire pit stop demonstration.
"It drops pretty hard," Johnson said. And he was right.
Watch: Holly Cain's in-car view of Jimmie Johnson's "Victory Lap" burnout
The burnouts absolutely lived up to my expectations and his promise that we'd "have a little fun." The second of Johnson's burnouts was so intense, it ended with a blown left rear tire.
"You hear that?" Johnson asked, with a mischievous smile. "Blew a tire."
With all the smoke billowing around the car as we spun and Johnson madly manhandling the steering wheel, I wondered how he could even keep his orientation in the intersection or when he does donuts on the race track celebrating a win.
"You don't," he said with a laugh, before revving the car and spinning us for an encore.
Leading the Chase field down the boulevard in between the two burnout stations and the pit stop, Johnson's head moved like he was watching a fast-paced point in tennis. He waved to both sides of the street and took note that it was one of the largest crowds in memory despite cool temperatures in the 40s. Fans on both sides screamed out for him. Standing on one corner was a couple who had hats with neon signs on top blinking "48-CHAMP" in bright red lights. Middle-aged women squealed, college-aged guys whistled and screamed.
"Germany loves you!" one fan yelled out.
"Wow, Germany, now that's cool," Johnson said giving the fan a thumbs-up with one hand, genuinely impressed with the attention and humbled by the big reception.
Johnson was clearly soaking it all in. In a week jam-packed with television appearances, luncheons, media interviews, he said this loud drive in the car was among the most reflective times of the week.
Six championships puts him one shy of NASCAR Hall of Famers Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt. From the moment Johnson officially clinched this year's title everyone else wanted to focus on that historic seventh. Johnson just wants to relish his sixth.
Before arriving in Las Vegas, Johnson said he watched the speech Earnhardt gave at the 1993 banquet after accepting his sixth championship trophy. Although he said he was initially watching it to hear a motivating line or perhaps discover a similar story, instead what struck Johnson most was how nervous Earnhardt looked at times -- "Just like the rest of us" -- and how simple the message really needed to be.
Even in different eras of the sport, the champion's thank you boiled down to showing your appreciation for sponsors, the team and family. And the fans.
"Did you watch Dale's seventh championship speech?" I asked, knowing the answer.
Johnson shook his head "no" and smiled.
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