Sooners' locker-room celebration gives Cup champ Johnson chills

12/5/2007 - NASCAR

Jimmie Johnson stood in the corner of the room, reveling in the moment. His team had emerged victorious, and the crew was celebrating wildly. This was a private party, just the team and those affiliated with it. This victory was huge, and would ultimately propel them to a championship.

They'd just spanked intrastate rival Oklahoma State, and the Oklahoma Sooners were whipped into a frenzy.

Johnson, whose wife, Chandra, is an OU alum, had joined the team on the sideline. After the game he had followed them into the tunnel and then into the locker room. So, then, here he was, enveloped by a hallowed fellowship saved by teams for members only.

It was unfiltered fraternal adrenaline. A brotherhood. And he loved it. Anyone who's ever been an athlete in a team sport can relate. Whether it's the small-town basketball game or the NFL playoffs, the camaraderie that stems from dismantling a rival is intoxicating, a rare and very special feeling.

A Sooners player -- Johnson couldn't recall which -- flipped a trash can on its lid and began to drum out a rowdy beat. The seniors were acknowledged and addressed their teammates and coaches briefly. See, it was the final home game of their careers, a 49-17 drubbing of the hated Cowboys.

Coach Bob Stoops then took the floor and praised his team's effort, just before introducing the unassuming skinny guy hiding in the back.

"I didn't know it was coming," Johnson said. "Then Coach Stoops just said, 'Hey guys, we have a special guest here today, 2007 Nextel Cup champion Jimmie Johnson.'"


OU defensive back D.J. Wolfe nearly had a coronary. A huge 48 fan, he ran over to Johnson, pulled him in the ring, lifted him in the air and began to bounce, making the NASCAR champ the epicenter of a Sooners hurricane.

"I was shocked to see the love for [me] and their knowledge of racing," Johnson said. "It was one of the few moments in my life where I was so shocked in what was going on that the hair on the back of my neck was standing up."

They moshed and pushed and shoved and screamed and hugged and bounced -- the locker room a human Big Game Lottery ping-pong ball dispenser.

It was one big congratulatory scrum.

And amid such promise, Johnson, it seems, was the Power Ball.


What's going on with all the traditional sponsors bowing out? First Winston leaves, then Busch, and now I read where Craftsman is leaving. Has NASCAR forgotten who brought them here?

-- John Whitaker, Auburn, Ala.

For the most part, no. Personally, I don't believe 100 percent responsibility falls on NASCAR, though the sanctioning body's increased price demand for sponsorship rights certainly plays a significant role.

This is business. The object is to increase profit, and a coveted competitive arena from which to generate increased sponsorship dollars provides leverage. You'd be crazy not to shoot for a larger deal.

Back in 2003, amid massive lawsuit settlements, restricted advertising and decreasing profits, R.J. Reynolds asked NASCAR to go find another title sponsor. Just so happened they found one willing to pay some $30 million more annually than the previous one ($75 million compared to $45 million, according to sources with knowledge of the deal) for the naming rights of the premiere series.

Anheuser-Busch, which sponsored NASCAR's second series from its inception, chose to allocate its NASCAR investment elsewhere. This is where NASCAR responsibility comes in: asking price. A-B spent about $10 million annually on the second series naming rights. Nationwide is in the $30 million neighborhood. Ultimately it's about one thing: ROI (return on investment), and A-B wasn't getting it with the Busch brand.

As hard as it was to get used to Nextel Cup Series, it'll be twice as hard to get used to Nationwide Series. If I don't call it Busch on TV next year, it'll be a miracle.

Now Craftsman? In 12 years of sponsoring the trucks, they ARE the brand. Craftsman activated very well with the tough trucks theme. Like Nationwide, the Truck Series replacement has a lofty standard to uphold.

I don't know this for certain, but I'd bet Craftsman was priced out of the market. It'd be cool if they took that money and allocated it to a Truck Series race team.


What do you think about your boy Stephen A. being named worst sports announcer in the world?

-- Jim Constantine, Phoenix

Utterly ridiculous, Jim. Do you know how good this guy is? Plus, he's cool as hell. He doesn't know me from Adam, but I needed his help recently and he was more than accommodating.

Following the Carl Edwards/Matt Kenseth UFC smackdown at Martinsville, I wrote a column about how teammates needn't be friends to be competitive. In doing so I needed some clarity on the Shaq/Kobe relationship, a rocky one, though one that produced three straight NBA titles. Guess who took the time to read the excerpt of my piece and offer insight? Stephen A. Smith.

Again, I'm a NASCAR guy. He doesn't need to take that time. But he did. That's all I really need to know about the guy.


How can you say that Jeff Gordon had the best non-championship season in history by "every key measure"? Did you forget about Bill Elliott's 11 wins in just 28 races in 1985 or David Pearson's 10 wins in just 22 starts in 1976 (granted, David didn't run the full schedule, but still).

Sure, Jeff had the most top-10s of anyone not to win the championship, but top-10s aren't "every key measure."

Honestly, I think Mark Martin's season in 1998 is the best season ever by a non-champion: seven wins and 22 top-5s, both more than what Jeff did this year, in three fewer races.

-- Ken, Richmond, Virginia

Well, Ken … here's all I can tell you, man: 1. I never said Gordon's year was the best non-title year ever. If those words were attached to my piece, they weren't mine. He did, though, have one of the greatest years in the sport's history, championship or not. There is no disputing that. 2. I've never used the term "every key measure" in my life. 3. I am quite impressed with your historical knowledge of NASCAR. 4. Elliott, I think, gets the nod over Martin. Barely.

And what about Rusty Wallace's 1993 season? Ten wins, 19 top-5s and 21 top-10s in 30 starts. He ultimately fell 80 points short of Dale Earnhardt that season, largely due to four straight DNFs. Amazing.


I read a story by you last week about Jeff Gordon and how he's comfortable being himself after years of trying to please everyone else. It was a great story. But underneath the story where people write in their comments, one guy complained that you never write negative stories. How do you deal with these idiots?

-- Bill Zarowski, hometown unknown

Hysterical. Thanks for the note, Bill. You have officially made my day. It's the nature of the job, man. You can't make everyone happy. Plus, fact is I'd rather write [and read] a story of hope or perseverance any day over something negative. Just my preference.

And hell, I have it easy. I chat often with a buddy of mine who coaches high school basketball. He tells me ridiculous stories about the politics involved with the parents. I'll take hater sports fans all day long over thumb-print fathers.


Need your help on the Christmas list. My son wants Rescue Pack, Thomas or Lightning McQueen?

-- Jill in Scranton, Pa.

Eesh. Tough one, Jill. Cambron got Rescue Pack for his birthday, and he's more into the mini Baby Jaguar than the Rescue Pack itself. Thomas is cool, too. We rode the rails with him this fall at the North Carolina Transportation Museum. (Seriously, 10 dads, 20 kids, no moms. It was pure comedy.) All said, though, I'm a racer -- Lightning McQueen gets my vote. You can never go wrong with cars.

That's all my time today, folks. I have to go find a positive story to write.

Marty Smith is a contributor to ESPN's NASCAR coverage. He can be reached at ESPNsider@aol.com.