Commentary

Three straight Cup titles? Johnson already thinking four

All of NASCAR is in New York this week to celebrate Jimmie Johnson's third straight Cup title. So why is JJ preoccupied with No. 4?

Originally Published: December 4, 2008
By Marty Smith | ESPN.com

NEW YORK -- Three weeks removed from hoisting his third straight Sprint Cup, Jimmie Johnson remains impermeable. Although the entire free world has anointed him legendary, his place in NASCAR history hasn't yet penetrated his bank-safe-thick skull.

"No, it hasn't sunk in," Johnson said Thursday during the NASCAR NMPA Myers Brothers Awards Luncheon at swanky Cipriani restaurant. "Maybe when I'm old and gray, and the grandkids are running around the room raising hell, then it'll sink in.

"Right now, I have a lot left to accomplish."

That seems to be the mantra for the No. 48 bunch these days -- never satisfied.

[+] EnlargeJimmie Johnson
AP Photo/Kathy WillensJimmie Johnson admires the 24-karat gold replica of his race car given to him at Thursday's luncheon.

It's as if these folks suddenly realize their position. The opportunity to become the best team in the history of the sport is attainable.

In accepting his champion crew chief award Thursday, Chad Knaus reflected on a team meeting from earlier in the season in which team owner Rick Hendrick commissioned Appalachian State football coach Jerry Moore to offer a motivational speech.

During the speech, HMS' four crew chiefs were asked to stand, and Knaus was put on the spot: Will you win the championship again in 2008?

Knaus responded, "We'll try our best."

Hendrick looked at Moore: "Coach?"

Moore responded, "Sometimes your best isn't good enough."

That comment left an indelible mark on Knaus. No one works harder than he does.

He took it so personally, in fact, that it lit a fire inside him that wasn't extinguished until the champagne drenched him at Homestead-Miami.

"I grabbed Rick by the neck after that [meeting] and said, 'He better be glad we don't play football at Hendrick Motorsports,'" Knaus said, half-smiling, lip still curled at the thought.

Knaus concluded his speech by pondering whether Johnson was the greatest driver in NASCAR, saying, "All I want is for you to be my friend and my driver."

"It was really cool to hear Chad and Robert's speeches," Johnson said. "They both said some really nice things that meant a lot to me."

Robert is Robert Niblock, Lowe's CEO, who looked like a proud papa onstage. His rehashing of Johnson's stats resonated: seven seasons, 40 wins and three championships.

Not bad for a kid who eight years ago nearly puked when Niblock's predecessor, Bob Tillman, asked him point-blank whether he could win at the Cup level.

Soon after Niblock's turn, Johnson took the stage.

He stood there, somewhat relaxed, in front of hundreds of people, trying not to grin. His hands were clasped politely in front of his waist, his black suit and tie perfectly pressed.

The stage was his, as it has been all week during NASCAR Champions Week in Manhattan. But on this day, he had company in the form of NASCAR's official sponsorship partners. Corporate representative upon corporate representative walked to the podium to recognize Johnson's excellence on behalf of his or her company.

And, man, the cash register just kept on ringing.

One hundred grand here. Seventy-five grand there. Johnson personally collected five awards, his dominance laid right out there for the industry, and his competitors, to witness. He led the most laps in the series: 1,959. He earned the most poles: six. He took home the signature 24-karat gold replica of the winning race car Goodyear hands the champion each season.

His pit crew won $100,000 for its prowess. His engine builder, Jay Wiles, won $100,000 and gave a wonderful speech in tribute to Randy Dorton, his mentor at Hendrick Motorsports. He spoke of the want to preserve Dorton's legacy, one that continues to drive everyone in the Hendrick engine shop four years after his death.

Knaus, for the third straight year, was praised by Sprint Cup director John Darby. Darby mentioned the Atlanta fall race specifically, how the No. 48 team took a 25th-place car and finished second with it and how that day was a microcosm of the team's entire year.

Sprinkled throughout the Johnson lovefest were plenty of clever lines:

Ryan Newman, upon accepting the Mobil 1 Award, which is awarded to the driver who runs the sponsor decal and leads the most laps: "I'd like to thank Carl [Edwards], Kyle [Busch] and Jimmie for not using Mobil 1."

Classic.

Kyle Busch's crew chief, Steve Addington, upon winning the crew chief of the year award: "Rick [Hendrick], I know you got another championship, but we got us a pretty good driver."

Hello.

And lastly, Carl Edwards and crew chief Bob Osborne provided a brief comedy routine. Edwards won the Dow Automotive Strategic Call of the Race Award and was supposed to accept his award with a speech. He failed to do so, opting instead to hang out onstage while Osborne received the Moog Chassis Parts Problem Solver of the Year Award.

Edwards, realizing his mistake, brought it to the gallery's attention, making light of the fact that here he and Osborne had just been recognized for their strategy and, well, they had just screwed up the strategy.

(It was much funnier in person. I promise.)

As the luncheon ended, the 12 Chase drivers filed out to an adjacent room to conduct more interviews. Johnson was perched atop the masses, up the stairs to the right, overseeing the rest of the room.

Asked about the remainder of his schedule Thursday, Johnson mentioned the fanfest at the Hard Rock Cafe, Tony Stewart's Stewie Awards and the end-of-year throwdown at Marquee.

Someone then mentioned how annoying all that must be. Johnson grinned and shook his head.

"You never know if this will happen again, man," he said.

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

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