Johnson collects his 6th Sprint Cup awards
Forget about the pressure of chasing history, which will begin when Johnson and his team return to the track in February. Over four days in Las Vegas, that all felt as far away as the California state line.
Johnson's sixth championship may seem in many minds like a bridge to a potential seventh crown, which would knot Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty for most of all time. But there were no indications of that this past week, when Johnson and his team celebrated their sixth championship with all the gusto of their first.
This wasn't about what might be to come -- it was about what was already accomplished, a championship that to Johnson and his No. 48 crew was much more than just the stepping stone so many have assumed it to be. It was clear this title meant a great deal in and of itself, especially since Johnson had spent the past two seasons removed from the throne, and now has a pair of young daughters to celebrate with.
Johnson's streak of five in a row was such a demanding beast, it could be difficult for him to enjoy the present. Freed from that burden, it wasn't long into this championship celebration before the tequila -- the champion's beverage of choice -- began flowing in earnest. This past week in Las Vegas, there was no luckier number than six.
"It is soaking in far more than any other experience I've had," Johnson said Friday night after finishing his speech. "I can't quite identify why …. Letting it in and enjoying it and feeling the applause and the respect that's being passed out … I'm letting in soak in now at the end of the day, and it's pretty cool to experience that way."
It was that way from the very beginning, starting with a series of social media photos that set Johnson, crew chief Chad Knaus, spotter Earl Barban and other crewmen amid an array of stuffed tigers, chickens and babies, reenacting scenes from the Las Vegas-set comedy film "The Hangover." And it truly ramped up Thursday, when three-time champion Tony Stewart received one of the sport's highest honors, the National Motorsports Press Association Myers Brothers Award for outstanding contributions to stock-car racing.
Talk about a moment -- it was downright stirring when Stewart, sidelined since August with two broken bones in his right leg suffered in a Sprint car accident, walked to the stage unaided amid a standing ovation. "Crazy," Stewart told the crowd assembled for the annual Myers Brothers Awards Luncheon, in which a number of season-ending awards were handed out. But typical of Stewart, the sentimentality didn't last for very long.
"I gave you guys 14 weeks without me," he said. "I'll be ready for Daytona and be back kicking your ass again."
It was just a little dose of what the sport has missed in the months since the irrepressible Stewart was injured at an Iowa dirt track. His recovery hasn't been easy -- he needed three surgeries, weathered one infection, and lost 16 pounds because he didn't eat anything but ice for the first six days after the crash. He's still having some difficulty with his toes, which he'll need to operate the pedals when he returns to the race car. But he was also more adamant than ever that he would return at Daytona.
"I'm really confident about Daytona now," he said. "The last three weeks in particular, the therapist has said we've pretty much turned a corner. … My mind's ready to go race. My leg needs a couple more weeks. But I'm ready."
And NASCAR will be ready to have him back. Stewart was lured to Las Vegas because Stewart-Haas Racing crew chief Matt Borland was to receive a contingency award at the Myers Brothers lunch. The Myers Brothers Award is the last one announced in the program, and Stewart was sitting at his table with his phone in his hands, preparing to text his pilot that it was about time to warm up the jet.
He didn’t have the first inkling of what was to come, until NMPA president and NASCAR.com writer Kenny Bruce began referring to someone who was a driver and an owner. "I was like, 'I haven't seen Michael (Waltrip) over here today,'" Stewart said. "… I put my phone down, and it just caught me off guard. I wasn't at all prepared for anything like this today, for sure. It's made my whole week. Made my whole week."
Stewart wasn't the only driver with a surprise in store. Clint Bowyer arrived at Champions Week on the heels of news that he had proposed to his girlfriend Lorra Podsiadlo, and everyone wanted to know how. "Pick a point the furthest from romantic that you could possibly be, and that’s right where I lie," he said. Needless to say, there was no trail of rose petals leading to a ring.
"No rose petals in my house," Bowyer said. "My family would kick the s--- out of me if I had rose petals on the floor. And if they didn’t, my friends would. I would never live that down. They would disown me."
And yet, she still said yes. And soon enough, Bowyer spotted her reading a bridal magazine. "I was like, what the hell? This is weird. This is new," he said. "I hadn't thought about any of that stuff. I would like to have Elvis marry me out here in the Little Chapel (of the West) and get the box set with the T-shirts and the coffee mugs. That’s my idea of a great wedding. About four of your friends, and two of them are midget Elvises."
Other then Johnson, perhaps no driver enjoyed Champions Week more than Bowyer, who in addition to his engagement was the star of the After The Lap program which followed the Victory Lap show car parade on the Las Vegas Strip. After Dale Earnhardt Jr. spoke in great length of his addiction to the online auction site eBay -- where he's not only a buyer of items like old racing magazines and Brewster Baker T-shirts, but a seller who's made his share of trips to the UPS Store -- Bowyer couldn’t help himself.
"I've never heard Dale Earnhardt Jr. talk so much in my life. What did you people do to him?" Bowyer asked the audience at the Palms casino theatre. It was the same when Kurt Busch dropped an F-bomb retelling the story of his 2002 encounter with Jimmy Spencer at Indianapolis, where Busch was called into the NASCAR hauler after patting his bottom -- short-track shorthand for "send him to the back" -- as his rival drove by.
"He's back! He's back everybody!" Bowyer interrupted. "I don't where you've been all year, but the real Kurt Busch is back!"
Busch snuck in a jab of his own later in the program, after Bowyer told the crowd he's more recognized these days for his guest appearance on the "Duck Dynasty" reality show than he is for being a race car driver. "Win some more races," Busch needled, "and maybe you'll be known for that." Bowyer just smiled. "The 90s were really good to you," he responded.
Bowyer might have met his match, though, in comedian Jay Mohr, who hosted Friday night's Sprint Cup Awards Ceremony at Wynn Las Vegas in his signature, roasting style, and had many of NASCAR's top names squirming in the process. "I guess I'm not the only bad actor here," Mohr told Bowyer, referring to a certain incident earlier this season at Richmond. "… You're going to be great at marriage, because you're already good at apologizing for things you may or may not have done."
Mohr, who hosted the program for the second time and whose acerbic wit spared no one -- example: "Jeff Gordon has just been added to the BCS championship game. It's Jeff against Florida State" -- received high marks from most drivers, even if he did get a steely glare from Danica Patrick after one particular comment. Although the "Jerry Maguire" actor was the talk of the night, there was really only one star -- Johnson, something everyone was reminded of again and again over the course of a week specifically designed to honor the series champions.
In the Victory Lap down the Strip, it was Johnson's blue and white No. 48 car leading the pack. While other drivers walked out onto the stage during the After the Lap program, Johnson descended from a raised platform to smoke and a shower of sparks. After the nine other drivers honored Friday had given their speeches, Sprint chief executive officer Dan Hesse toasted Johnson with champagne, and NASCAR chairman Brian France presented the Hendrick Motorsports driver with his latest championship ring.
"I'm a young man," France said. "And I think it's possible you're going to run out of fingers while I'm still in my post."
Indeed, for all the celebration over a sixth title, the prospect of that seventh crown always lingered just below the surface. Mohr closed the formal awards ceremony by saying we all now await Johnson's "inevitable march" toward the championship that would knot Petty and Earnhardt. And for any doubters, the comments Knaus made to his team during the Myers Brothers lunch had to be more uncomfortable that any verbal stinger from Mohr.
"You guys are so young," Knaus said from the stage. "You have so much more that you can do."
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