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Johnson gets new view -- eventually -- of banquet

December 03, 2011, Mark Aumann, NASCAR.com

Jimmie Johnson's speech wasn't the last of the night for the first time since 2005. (Getty Images)

LAS VEGAS -- After five years at head table, he becomes one of the crowd in Vegas

When the key members of the championship team were being seated at the head table Friday evening to open the 2011 Sprint Cup Series awards banquet, Tony Stewart's name was announced but Jimmie Johnson was the one who came out from behind the curtain to take his seat.

Why not? Johnson's had that prime piece of real estate for five consecutive banquets, and it took perhaps the best championship battle in NASCAR history to knock him off the dais.

"There's this indescribable feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction that comes with being the champion. I won't be able to feel that this year, but I'm really proud of the guy who will."

--JIMMIE JOHNSON

"They ought to engrave his name on that seat and that stage," Jeff Gordon said. "Even in my speech, I could have very easily gone up there and said, 'Congratulations, Jimmie.' It becomes a habit, and what they've done the last five years is amazing."

It was a playful and humorous way to acknowledge a streak of excellence that even now is hard to comprehend. It's difficult to remember back to a time when Johnson wasn't dominant. Stewart -- the most recent champion not named Johnson -- won the 2005 title driving the No. 20 Chevy for Joe Gibbs.

"Obviously, we can't forget somebody that's done something that will probably never, ever be done in this sport again," Stewart said. "Buddy, I'm really proud of you. I never thought being a set of bookends would be such a gratifying feeling but what you guys did for five years is amazing."

Gordon agreed with Stewart's assessment.

"I don't think it'll ever be done again," Gordon said. "I really don't. It's just so hard to accomplish and those guys made it look easy but it wasn't. They had to work really hard at it. They are a great team, and I think it just goes to show when you have a group of individuals that click, that have chemistry, anything is possible."

When it came time for Johnson to reflect on his 2011 season, he looked over at Stewart, sitting a few yards away in the seat from where Johnson has watched each of the past five awards ceremonies.

"To be honest with you, it's so hard to put into words what the last five years have been like," Johnson said. "There's this indescribable feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction that comes with being the champion. I won't be able to feel that this year, but I'm really proud of the guy who will."

Despite a rocky start to the Chase, Johnson finished second at Dover and won at Kansas, showing much of the resilience that highlighted so many of his previous championship runs. But he crashed hard at Charlotte, resulting in a 34th-place finish, and from that point on, he knew the end of his reign was at hand.

"There were a lot of mistakes that were made in the Chase that I want to reflect and learn from," Johnson said. "In previous years, I've worked really hard on the offseason. And after 10 years of all this, I'm taking time off. I'm unplugging. It'll be far less work for me than any other offseason."

Johnson subscribes to the adage that you learn most from your failures, and he expects to return in 2012 with a refocused attitude.

"It's easy to win," Johnson said. "It's easy to handle it right and say the right things, do the right things. When you make mistakes and get challenged, that's where the lessons come from.

"I look at 32 years of racing and I've won seven championships. So there's a lot of losing. There's only one winner every week, so you learn how to lose."

Nothing lasts forever, especially championship streaks. And Johnson knew it would end at some point. Still, 2011 was a year Johnson won't soon forget.

"Our season didn't turn out as we hoped, but it wasn't from lack of effort," Johnson said. "It was a year of firsts for me, a year that I will certainly learn from, to say the least. I found my way into social media -- which I despised and now seem to spend way too much time doing. I had a few arguments, and even had a lame attempt at crashing Kurt Busch at Richmond.

"There's a lot of things to learn from this year, a lot of ups and downs. And I know I will be stronger from this. My team will, as well. And I hope to be back at that head table soon."

It's a seat that Johnson knows well, even if it had a new occupant Friday evening.

For photo images from Champion's Week, including the Sprint Cup Series banquet, click below.