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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – A pink, plastic toy race car is parked outside Jimmie Johnson's motor coach here in the infield of Daytona International Speedway, right next to the pink, plastic toy kitchen.
It is property of Evie Johnson, age two-and-a-half. It represents both the ultimate joy and about the only possible disappointing trend in her father's current blissful existence.
Yes, little Evie is interested in auto racing. It's just her favorite driver may not actually be her own dad, the five-time Sprint Cup champion, but rather someone who's never won a single stock car race.
"Danica," Johnson says with mock disappointment and a shake of his head. "I'm second place. It's at least migrating that way. She can spot two cars on the track, one is the 48 and the other is the bright green car.
"[Tuesday] she wanted to see Danica's car, so we took her to Danica's car and then went back to the truck and she got to meet Danica herself. So it was a big day for Evie."
(Johnson isn't the only one potentially losing his own daughter's fandom to Patrick, the Sprint Cup's sole female driver and the fastest qualifier for Sunday's 55th Daytona 500. Patrick has entertained the daughters of Carl Edwards and Jeff Gordon, too, this week. "Very flattering," Danica said.)
Not that Jimmie Johnson (or any respectable father) was ever the type who would care about his daughter's favorite racer, but as the 37-year-old prepares for another Sprint Cup season, with his eyes as always on another championship, he acknowledges he's achieved a level of comfort and maturity that even a few years ago he couldn't have envisioned.
It's long been good to be Jimmie Johnson – rich, famous, successful and with a beautiful family – but maybe this is the time he's finally, truly realizing it.
He's here to win, but he's here to win for himself and not anyone or anything else.
"I have a lot to prove to myself, but I don't think I have anything to prove to anyone else," Johnson said.
A year ago, a shot at a sixth Sprint Cup title fell apart in the final two races. Yet rather than brood over what didn't happen, Johnson soon found himself looking at the bigger picture and appreciating the positives of the 2012 season. A few years back, that probably wouldn't have been possible.
"We didn't win the championship but we had a year to be proud of," he said. "I think we won every stat, including DNFs [Did Not Finish], which led to the fact we didn't win the championship. Everything was there. Speed was there. Performance was there. Unity within the team was there.
"Trophies don't always mean you hit your goals," he continued. "There are races that we have won that we backed into. There are races we have won when the car was driving as such a dream that it wasn't a big deal. There are races that we have won that I had to work my tail off to get it done. Those are the races I'm proud of."
Johnson's five consecutive titles from 2006-2010 remains a NASCAR gold standard. It's only part of his story. Across his 11 full seasons at the Sprint Cup level, his worst finish is sixth. It's an epic run of sustained greatness. Johnson acknowledges he's capable of taking a second to look at that and enjoy it.
"I guess I am able to identify with moments more now," he acknowledged. "I hate to admit it, but with 400 starts and at 37 years old, I'm not the young guy anymore."
No, he isn't. He talks about enjoying "meals" prepared from Evie's pink kitchen, and the other night when she woke up the motorcoach at three in the morning, and how that was fun even if it meant watching another cartoon.
"She's worn Dora out," he said. "I can't take another Dora episode. Lately she's been into Mike the Knight. His sister is named Evie, and she thinks its so amazing that she has the same name as someone on TV."
He laughs at the innocence. This is a proud father. And yes, for a guy who lived a pretty cool existence, who married a model, jets back and forth between his North Carolina spread and his condo in Manhattan and had plenty of nights when being awake at three meant he was just getting home, these are undeniably simple pleasures.
"I couldn't imagine being single," he said. "I went through a phase of being single, trying to win races and chase girls. That's tough business. That's a tough game. I'm past that 21 mark by a long stretch, so you don't feel like your missing out by not being out at night.
"I feel like I was in such a hurry for so many years to get somewhere, do something, get to the next thing. Now I'm savoring the moments much more than I used to."
Let there be no mistake, Johnson is as competitive as ever. The focus, drive and hunger that long has powered his near unprecedented success hasn't waned at all.
His old stated goal was to win eight Cup Series titles, which would push him past the all-time mark of seven, shared by Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt Sr. Why stop there though?
"Ten, 12, whatever," he said. "I just want to win them."
He points to a couple seasons he could've seized another championship and didn't. Last year was one of them. There is no bitterness, though, just a refocusing. Jimmie Johnson may not be the young guy, but he's in his prime and there isn't a single doubt in his mind, or probably anyone else's, that when the Chase for the Cup gets serious next fall, he's going to be a major player.
"I felt like for the longest time if I don't win one now I may never win one," he said. Then when he did, it was five in a row, which meant there was the pressure of maintaining the streak.
"I didn't know [I felt the pressure] until it was gone," Johnson said. "Then it was, 'Wow. I feel light. I feel awesome.' There is a lingering pressure even if you try not to get caught up in that."
Inside his motor coach his wife was keeping an eye on his napping daughter. Maybe Evie was dreaming about fast green cars. Johnson's fine with that. It's fun. It's funny.
The man who seemingly has everything appears to love every minute of this – the fulfillment of family coupled with the excitement of another season. He's focused on the same single goal of a championship, but he's past making a championship the single focus of life.
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