LAS VEGAS ? Jimmie Johnson capped off a long day, a long week and a long season Friday night, accepting accolades as NASCAR celebrated the Hendrick Motorsports driver for the sixth time as its Sprint Cup Series champion.
It was fitting that the night ended much as the season began, with Johnson out front at day's end. In late February, he won the series' season-opening race, the Daytona 500. On this night, he was feted as its best for the season.
"Buddy, I'm in awe of what you've accomplished," team owner Rick Hendrick said in his remarks on stage at the Wynn Las Vegas. "Your focus, dedication and talent is second to none. You're one of the best ever. It's not only that you're a great champion, but you're a great role model."
Rehearsals for the evening's event kicked off the final day's activities to Champion's Week 2013 for Johnson and the No. 48 team. Receptions, photo opportunities, more receptions, more photos and a red-carpet arrival followed. And finally, the familiar seat at the head table.
Still, the night was young. Nine others were honored for their respective finishes. Entertainment, a meal and accolades of one sort or another filled the space until finally it was time.
Time for Johnson to make his way to the podium, time for the champion to be honored.
It should be old hat for the El Cajon, Calif., native by now. He's had his share of practice. The nerves remain, however.
"That's a terrifying ? five or six minutes," a relieved Johnson said afterward. "It seems like 60 minutes.
"It's only terrifying because you want to be sure and thank everyone ? and not miss anyone."
Only two others have won the Cup title more often ? Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt, both seven-time champions. Johnson had said he hoped to draw something, perhaps, from the two when they won their sixth titles to give substance and weight to his own celebration.
"To my surprise, they didn't have a banquet back then," Johnson said of Petty's sixth championship season, which came in 1975. "There wasn't television coverage like we have today ? so I really couldn't find anything on the King's speech."
It was easier to unearth video of Earnhardt's acceptance effort, which occurred in 1993.
"He was just as nervous up here as the rest of us," Johnson said. "? To be honest with you, to do something that only those two men have done is crazy and wild and humbling. ? We're all indebted to them for their contributions to our sport."
Fellow driver Greg Biffle, a championship winner in the Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series, said the difference in those drivers seated in the audience and the guy at the head table was having "the right cars, the right organization, (making) the right calls."
And when they aren't, the Roush Fenway Racing driver said, "you have to find ways to overcome what might be a bad day. ? That's how championships are made, by overcoming adversity."
Hendrick teammate Jeff Gordon, a four-time champion, said Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus are "individually ? the best at what they do, but together, they're just this dominant force and it's hard to beat that."
If there's a difference this time around, Johnson said, it's that he's taking the time to enjoy the experience much more.
"It's soaking in far more than any other ? I've had," he said. "I can't quite identify why ? some of it's due to being a parent now and changing a lot in the last three or four years. ? That part of it, letting it in and enjoying it, feeling the applause and respect."
It is, he said "slightly embarrassing" to have others talk about you, even when those comments are high praise.
"It's very nice to have the spotlight on you ? but through those five years I wonder if I was a little, embarrassed isn't the right word ? I'm letting it soak in now at the end of the day and it's pretty cool to experience it that way."
FULL SERIES COVERAGE
- Sports & Recreation
- Motor Racing
- Hendrick Motorsports