Johnson collects more big money at awards  ceremony

Updated: December 1, 2007, 2:25 AM ET
Associated Press

NEW YORK -- The only time the smile has left Jimmie Johnson's face this week is when somebody mentioned his upcoming appearance on stage Friday night at NASCAR's annual awards ceremony.

There hasn't been much else to frown about for Johnson in 2007, a season in which he improved on most of his 2006 numbers on the way to a second straight Nextel Cup championship.

"I've been having a great time since I crossed the finish line at Homestead [two weeks ago], knowing that we had the championship wrapped up," Johnson said. "But every time I think about making that speech, I get a little bit of nerves and wish that part was over. We're not trained for that kind of stuff."

At least this time, Johnson managed to prepare the speech early in the week. Last year, the then-new champion kept putting it off because, first, he couldn't figure out how to get started and, once he did get going, he couldn't figure out how to cram all the thank yous into the allotted time.

"That's the hardest part of it," Johnson said as he prepared to step onto the stage at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel to collect another big payout. "You want to thank everybody who ever did anything to help you get to this point and, believe me, that's a lot of people."

Chandra Johnson, Jimmie's wife, understands her husband's nerves.

"He doesn't worry about driving a race car 200 miles an hour inches away from other drivers, but standing up there, in front of everybody, telling people how much they mean to him is tough.

"But you know, it means he's the champion, and he'll get through it just fine."

The banquet was highlighted by a tribute to Bill France Jr., the late NASCAR chairman who died in June at the age of 74.

There was a moving tribute by longtime TV anchorman and France friend Tom Brokaw, who said France, known to everyone as Bill Jr., was the "personification of the American dream."

Another special moment came when the Bill France Award Of Excellence, named after Bill Jr.'s father, NASCAR founder Bill France Sr., was given to longtime broadcaster Barney Hall.

Johnson will collect the winner's share of the huge season and points fund payout. He collected a record $15,770,125 last year and came up just a little short of that this year at $15,313,920, including $7,646,421 from the season points fund.

That brings Johnson's career earnings to $59,531,336.

There were plenty more big checks handed out Friday night, too, with the largest top 10 points fund payout in series history at $24,068,732.

Series runner-up Jeff Gordon collected $10,926,687, including $3,280,915 from the points fund, and raised his all-time leading earnings total to $93,300,213.

Daytona 500 winner Kevin Harvick, who finished 10th, took home $8,861,128.

The ceremony was the conclusion to a spectacular season for Johnson, who doubled his wins in his second championship season, jumping from five in 2006 to 10 this year. He had another 24 top-10 finishes, but raised his top-fives from 13 to 20.

And what NASCAR fan could forget Johnson's four straight victories during the 10-race Chase for the championship that all but buried the chances of his friend and Hendrick Motorsports teammate Gordon?

Gordon wound up second in the points despite a record-setting 30 top-10s in 36 races and an average finish of 5.1 in the Chase. Johnson beat him with an average finish of 5.0.

The four-time champion, who also is co-owner of Johnson's car, was almost as happy as if he had won another title.

"You know, it's just been an awesome week watching Jimmie enjoy this," Gordon said. "Last year, he was sort of overwhelmed, and I certainly understand that. But this time, Jimmie can appreciate everything about winning the championship."

The other 11 drivers in the Chase also were given big checks Friday night, along with 13th-place finisher Ryan Newman and rookie of the year Juan Pablo Montoya.

Johnson shared the stage Friday with crew chief Chad Knaus, who has been with him since he began his full-time Cup career in 2002, and team owner Rick Hendrick, who was celebrating his seventh Cup championship.

In his six seasons Johnson has never finished worse than fifth and, next season, he will try to match the record of three straight championships set by Cale Yarborough from 1976-78.

That record has people talking dynasty.

NASCAR chairman Brian France said he was particularly impressed with the way Johnson and his No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team keep improving.

"He is dominating and maybe [it is] a dynasty," France said.

Before the ceremony, Knaus reflected on last year's awards, when he said winning the championship was a dream come true.

"Sometimes your dreams come true, but there's nothing wrong with dreaming again," Knaus said. "Hope we see you back here again next year."

Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press