Jimmie Talks Past, Present, Future At Banquet
By John Sturbin | Senior Writer
Jimmie Johnson marked his sixth NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship Friday night as driver, parent and cultural historian, and with a tongue-in-cheek suggestion for the next chapter of his wonderful life.
The latter was delivered by championship runnerup Matt Kenseth during the annual NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Awards at Wynn Las Vegas. Introduced immediately before Johnson, Kenseth began his remarks by congratulating Johnson, crew chief Chad Knaus and team-owner Rick Hendrick as they sat at the head table to culminate Champions Week activities.
“But I honestly have to say your dominance is getting old,” said Kenseth, referring to Johnson’s run of six championships during the last eight seasons. “If I were you Jimmie, I’d seriously contemplate retirement. Maybe…go buy yourself an island, hang out with the family, pick up some new hobbies, take some of that money and enjoy yourself. We’ll all chip-in.”
Of course, that’s not about to happen, as NASCAR already has scheduled a day-long offseason test for Monday at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
“It’s what we do,” said Johnson, whose sixth title placed him one behind NASCAR Hall of Famers Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt. “Funny, at one point in time we all wanted to race every single weekend. Now we almost do and we wish that we didn’t. Testing will start up before we know it and I’m excited for 2014 and think that our Lowe’s Chevrolet SS is
going to be awfully fast once again.”
Johnson and the No. 48 team will head into the 2014 season-opening Daytona 500 in February as both defending race and series champions, and with enough momentum to intimidate any peer.
“Winning the (four carburetor restrictor) plate races are important…and we’ll see what the rules package is that’s going to change things up dramatically,” said Johnson, who like Knaus sported a full beard to go with his tuxedo. “The Gen-6 car in its first year did so many great things for our sport and raced very competitively, and I think we’re only going to make it better for next year.”
Johnson returned to the head table for the first time since 2010, the end of a record-setting five consecutive Cup championships with Hendrick Motorsports. Johnson and wife Chandra now are parents of two daughters, with Jimmie acknowledging the impact of fatherhood on his overall perspective.
“This year was clearly a huge year for me professionally, but personally it was so much more,” Johnson said. “(Daughter) Genevieve is almost three and a-half now, and Lydia was born in September, a week before the Chase started. Honestly, being a parent is the greatest thing I’ve ever experienced in my life and I love my girls so very much.
“It is different. I feel like I’m savoring it much more than I had in the stretch of those five. But I also have to give credit to maturing and growing up some and I think becoming a parent has changed the way I see the world dramatically, and that’s helping me slow this all down and take it in a little differently.”
Johnson, whose six wins this season included two during the 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship, finished 19 points (2,419-2,400) ahead of Kenseth. But speaker after speaker noted that even Kenseth’s career-best seven victories was not enough to derail the Johnson juggernaut that now carries the nickname “Six-Pack.”
“Jimmie, buddy, I’m in awe of what you’ve accomplished,” said Hendrick, who was honored for his record 11th Cup championship and 14th among NASCAR’s three national touring series. “Your focus, your dedication, your talent is second-to-none. You’re one of the best-
ever and it’s not only that you’re a great champion but you’re a great role model. And Chad, in my book you’re the best coach in professional sports. It’s your leadership and your drive that set the tone and the No. 48 team does it the right way – they work hard and they work together. Congratulations, guys.”
Dan Hesse, CEO of series title sponsor Sprint, dispensed with the usual on-stage championship check presentation in favor of a champagne toast.
“Ten years ago when Sprint became the title sponsor of the series, Jimmie Johnson was hardly a household name,” Hesse said. “He was a young, single athlete, only two years removed from his rookie season. Now he’s married, the father of two and the sport’s legend. The word ‘legend’ is used for names like Petty and Earnhardt but Jimmie now joins them as the only drivers in the 65 years of the series with six titles. But it took Richard 12 years and Dale 14 years between their first and sixth titles, and Jimmie’s done it in only eight years.
“This is certainly a team sport, but Rick, Chad and everyone at Lowe’s and Hendrick Motorsports have created a real dynasty with the No. 48 team. In American professional sports, only two other teams in history have won six titles in eight years – Bill Russell’s Boston Celtics and Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls. This puts Jimmie and his team in really rare company.” Only 29 drivers have been crowned Cup champion in NASCAR’s premier series during the sport’s 65-year history.
Johnson said he began preparation for his latest speech by trying to find out what King Richard said after winning his sixth Cup championship in 1975.
“To my surprise, they didn’t have a banquet back then,” said Johnson, a 38-year-old native of El Cajon, Calif. “There wasn’t any television coverage like there is today and media and I
couldn’t really find anything on the King’s speech. But I was able to find Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s speech (from 1994)…and it was interesting to watch. I expected to see some life-changing thing in there I could attach to my speech; some meaningful moment or whatever. He was just as nervous as the rest of us. He was rattled, got off the stage and walked away.
“To be honest with you, to do something that only those two men have done is crazy and wild and humbling. I’m just so thankful for the opportunity. Truthfully, we’re all indebted to them for their contributions to our sport. So a lot of respect and props to both of them.”
Johnson praised Hendrick and wife Linda for creating “the winningest organization in NASCAR history. You both created this by caring for people you employ and treating us all like family. I am honored to call myself a Hendrick employee.”
Johnson continued the we-are-family theme with Knaus, whose six titles as crew chief all have been scored with Jimmie during the Chase Era. “Chad, we’re basically family and your desire and commitment to make that race car go – I honestly cannot thank you enough for what you do,” Johnson said. “When you’re driving the car from the pit box…he does a good job with that. But at the end of the day, you pushing me as hard as you do only makes me better. It’s not fun at times, but it only makes me better and I can’t thank you enough for all the support, the friendship and the success we’ve had together.”
Johnson also allowed himself a brief stroll down memory lane to his dirt-track racing days as a kid in Southern California, including dirt bikes before graduating to the Mickey Thompson Stadium Truck Series.
“It’s tough up here because I’ve been able to meet and work with so many amazing people along the way,” Johnson said. “These people have molded me and shaped me into the person I am today, and the driver I am today. You know who you are and thank you so very much. And that starts from my mom and dad, my brothers, car-owners, sponsors, drivers that I’ve worn-out asking questions over the years about how to drive tracks and places, teammates, family and friends. Thank you all so very much.
“When you raced on the dirt, you were tough – that’s what my dad used to say all the time. We’d go to dirt tracks all around, it was two wheels or four. It was something we did as a family. Instead of having a soccer tournament on the weekend or baseball or football, we were a racing family. We traveled all around the country racing and my parents were all-in support of their kids. We didn’t have the nicest house, they didn’t have the nicest cars but we had dirt bikes and we were at the racetrack every weekend. So through that and those great experiences gave me this desire and passion to race and I’ve been able to turn it into far more.”
Johnson closed his remarks with a quote from Nelson Mandela, the South African anti-apartheid revolutionary, politician and philanthropist who served as President of that nation from 1994 to 1999. Mandela died Thursday at age 95. “I think this quote fits our sport so very well and speaks loudly about what we’re capable of in this room,” Johnson said. “It’s from the late Nelson Mandela, and he said this in 2006: ‘Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire, it has the power to unite people in a way that little else does.’ That’s true. That’s NASCAR.”
Earlier, NASCAR Chairman/CEO Brian Z. France presented Chandra with a diamond bracelet and Jimmie with another championship ring. “I’m a pretty young guy,” France joked. “I think it’s entirely possible you’re going to run out of fingers while I’m still at my post. But right now we’re working on No. 6, we’ll start a new hand as you make history. Unbelievable run Jimmie. We’re really proud of you at NASCAR.”
Mike Helton, NASCAR president, presented Hendrick with his car-owner’s hardware by noting that the Charlotte auto dealer started out by fielding a car in what is now NASCAR’s Nationwide Series, winning his first race in 1983 with Dale Earnhardt at the wheel at Charlotte Motor Speedway. In 1984 Hendrick organized All-Star Racing with one car, five fulltime employees and Geoffrey Bodine as driver. At the end of that season, the team finished ninth in points.
“Thirty years later he (Hendrick) sits here as NASCAR Sprint Cup’s all-time, car-owner champion,” Helton said. “And in those 30 years has built an empire and a standard that all of NASCAR has grown by. But statistics alone don’t define Rick Hendrick justifiably. It’s as much about his courage, his resiliency and his heart. There’s not a current employee or a former employee or driver of Rick Hendrick that still doesn’t call him friend. He’s become one of the all-time greats not just in our sport but in all of sports.”
Kenseth, the 2003 Cup champion with team-owner Jack Roush, lauded crew chief Jason Ratcliff and his team for an “incredible” first year together at Joe Gibbs Racing.
“When I first walked in the door at JGR I knew we were going to run well but this year certainly exceeded all of our expectations,” said Kenseth, driver of the No. 20 Dollar General Toyota Camry. “Thanks to Coach (Joe Gibbs) and J.D. (Gibbs) for giving me this great opportunity, everyone at JGR for all their hard work, passion, dedication to bring the very best race cars on the track each and every week. Jason, thanks for getting the very best out of all of us, leading the group and making it happen for me every weekend. Enjoy working with you and can’t wait to get started on 2014.”
Robin Pemberton, NASCAR’s vice president of competition and racing development, honored Chevrolet and the Gen-6 SS nameplate for the company’s 37th Manufacturer’s Championship with a presentation to Mark Reuss, president of GM North America. Chevrolet has scored 718 Cup victories.
Comedian and host Jay Mohr dropped a series of one-liners on a number of drivers, including Danica Patrick and boyfriend Ricky Stenhouse Jr., the Roush Fenway Racing driver who won the Sunoco Rookie of the Year Award this season; Clint Bowyer of Michael Waltrip Racing and Jeff Gordon of HMS.
Mohr noted that Bowyer – key player in a plot to manipulate the final 12-driver Chase lineup at Richmond International Raceway – was seated with his fiancée. “Clint, you’re going to be great at marriage,” Mohr said, “since you’re already great at apologizing for things you may or may not have done.”
That RIR incident prompted an investigation by NASCAR which led to the addition of four-time Cup champion Gordon to the Chase as an unprecedented 13th competitor. During the course of the evening, Mohr interrupted his monologue to announce that Gordon had been added to the BCS Championship football game; that Gordon had been added to the Best Picture Category at the Oscars and that a 13th month had been added to the calendar, known as Jeffgordonuary, right after December.
Mohr also had this advice for Johnson: “Jimmie, I think I speak for every driver in this room when I say, take a year off. Or do what Jeff Gordon did – win four (championships) and quit.”
The awards show will re-air on FOX Sports 1 at noon (EST) on Sunday.
– John Sturbin can be reached at email@example.com Comments