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Johnson Eager To Climb Toward NASCAR Pinnacle Again At Daytona

Daytona Beach, Florida - There isn’t much that Jimmie Johnson hasn’t accomplished in 11 seasons of NASCAR Sprint Cup racing. He has won four Brickyard 400s at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, including last July, and five NASCAR Sprint Cup titles.

But he has just one win in the Daytona 500, in 2006.

That is a better record than some other big names in the sport, such as three-time Cup champion and two-time Brickyard winner Tony Stewart, who has never won the Daytona 500.

Johnson is able to answer the question: Which is bigger to a NASCAR driver? Winning the Daytona 500 or the Sprint Cup title?

“There isn’t a single race larger than this one,” Johnson said. “The Daytona 500 is in the same sentence as the other major auto racing events around the world. When you think of Monaco, Le Mans, Daytona 500, Indianapolis 500, those are the staples. But a championship does trump that, in my opinion.

“I was fortunate to win my Daytona 500 before my first championship. I was plenty happy. Winning the Daytona 500 was a huge accomplishment for myself.”

Johnson began his Cup career in 2002 and has accumulated an astounding 60 wins. He will make his 400th career Cup start in the Daytona 500.

Even after all his success, Johnson admits feeling butterflies when it comes to the biggest race in NASCAR.

"Yes, the 500 is the biggest,” Johnson said. “You get to the end of the year, and you are in the hunt, the championship butterflies supersede any other butterfly known to mankind. That changes things quite a bit. I still do get that pre-race jitter. It is just something I'm used to, and if it's not showing up on race day, I actually question why and then somehow generate that feeling again. I think it is important to have it and get in the car and respect what we do. Then fire the engine; make a couple of laps - that always helps.”

Johnson’s streak of success is historic. But all streaks come to an end, and Johnson has seen two other drivers win the title since his last championship in 2010. Stewart scored his third Cup crown in 2011, and Brad Keselowski won the championship last season.

Some have claimed that Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus have lost their momentum at Hendrick Motorsports.

Fat chance.

“No, we haven’t thought of it as a loss of momentum,” Johnson said. “I think back to the five in a row and really how special that time was. It (sixth title) didn’t happen for a lot of reasons. It’s tough. We were very fortunate to get that done.

“When I look at 2011, I’m disappointed in the way we performed and the way we were involved in the Chase. We really weren’t past the halfway point. But last year was quite different. I’m very proud of the effort we put in. I think that last year kind of showed how much of a team sport NASCAR racing really is. We seem to forget that at times and how many variables do play into winning the championship. We go to Phoenix and our issue. We go to Homestead, a couple of issues. There is a lot more to it than just Chad and I and what we do in the car. At the end of the day, I’m very proud of what we did last year.”

Johnson appeared in prime position for a run at the title in the closing races of last year’s “Chase for the Championship.” But a crash at the penultimate race of the season at Phoenix and another crash at the season finale at Homestead ended Johnson’s year in the garage area instead of the champion’s stage on the frontstretch.

“Watching him on ‘SportsCenter’ following the race trying to drink a beer was not sure the best thing for our sport and how he handled that, but honestly, he and Paul (Wolfe, crew chief) did an amazing job,” Johnson said of Keselowski. “When I think of them as competitors, they are awesome. They put up a heck of a fight.

“Sure, I’m bummed that we didn’t have the final two races that we hoped to have had. What I was laughing about is Brad, as mature as he wants to portray himself as, he had some growing to do. Now he is in the spotlight as the champion, and I think we all sit back and chuckle at times at some of the things he says and does. He is a great guy. He has the best of intentions for our sport, for his sponsor, for his team. He just needs to mature a little. I'm sure people can look back on my '06 year and have plenty of things to point fingers at.”

Johnson never let his championship success change him as a person, but he offers some insight into how Keselowski’s career will be different now that he has won the Cup title.

“I think he will be more aware of his voice,” Johnson said. “Once you are the champion, your voice carries much further. The more success you have in the sport, the voice will carry further and further. I had my own experiences where I would just casually mention something, and I didn't realize how far it went, and maybe I wasn't as accurate as I needed to be. So I think he'll have a few moments like that which will rein him back in some and make him think about what he says and be more calculated.”

Johnson is the most successful driver at defending a championship in NASCAR history. The previous record for title streaks was three straight set by Cale Yarborough from 1976-78. Johnson increased that to five-straight from 2006-10.

So nobody knows the difference between winning a championship and defending a title better than Johnson.

“A lot of it depends on how the season starts,” Johnson said. “If you take off where you left off, it’s pretty easy, and you get accustomed to what being the champion is, the perks that come with it, the notoriety. Then everything kind of blends in. But once you are a champion, at any point following that when you don’t run like you should for a period of time, the questions will come. That is when any driver and team are tested. It just depends on when that moment in time is.

“Brad (Keselowski) and Paul (Wolfe) are both very strong together. I don’t see it affecting them and preventing them from succeeding, but they will be reminded often that you have to go out there and earn each and every week. It’s not a layup. I don’t think they feel that it is, but I have had years where we left the Chase successful, started the season successful then midway through the year it became really tough. Then the pressure sinks in, and your mind starts playing some games on you. Those were moments we just had to learn from and work through. I would expect at some point in the year they will go through that, too.”
 

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