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For Johnson, Champion's Week feels like first time

December 06, 2013, David Caraviello,

Six-time champion Johnson showing a different side during this Champion's Week

Watch: Awards Show live stream, 9 p.m. ET

LAS VEGAS -- A stuffed tiger. Chickens. Even a baby Carlos, complete with a chest carrier.

Jimmie Johnson's sixth Champion's Week reigning over NASCAR's top series has turned into one extended scene from "The Hangover," with members of his staff loading his hotel suite with plush replicas of the items featured in the film. Johnson has played along, posting daily photos of the gags on his various social media feeds, including one where he pretends -- we think -- to be passed out on the bathroom floor next to an overturned beer bottle and a stuffed chicken.

"There are a few other fun things I'm trying to get squared away to kind of continue the madness," he said Thursday, after receiving several contingency awards as part of the National Motorsports Press Association Myers Brothers Awards Luncheon.

The big show arrives tonight, when Johnson is honored as Sprint Cup Series champion for the sixth time. Well aware of the rarity of that accomplishment, the Hendrick Motorsports driver has tried to research the sixth championship speeches of Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt -- the two men who currently share the record of seven titles -- hoping to draw some connection and place his achievement in its proper context.

It's been a mixed bag. Petty won his sixth crown in 1975, six years before the modern awards ceremony was established in New York, and when the previous year's champion was often honored with a dinner in Daytona Beach at the following Speedweeks. Johnson had better luck with Earnhardt, finding video of the Intimidator's sixth championship speech in 1993, even though it wasn't quite what he envisioned.

"I expected to see some life-changing thing on there, something I could attach to my speech in some meaningful moment or whatever. But he was just as nervous as the rest of us up there, and said the basic things, and was rattling and shaking and got off the stage and walked away," Johnson said, laughing.

"But I do recognize that I'm in a very unique position, in a position only two other men have ever been in. If I can find an eloquent way to mention that, that's my goal to pass some praise and honor that I'm in that grouping that only two other men have been in."

Much of this week has been about pure enjoyment for Johnson, as the presence of stuffed babies and tigers might suggest. Johnson is soaking in a championship celebration that harkens back to his first in 2006 -- before the streak of five in a row, which the No. 48 team felt so much pressure to maintain, it was often looking ahead to the next year before the previous one was even over. Johnson and his crewmen occasionally became lost in the mechanics and forgot to really have fun through it all.

"The streak, when it was alive -- I didn’t realize how much pressure for that we were carrying on our shoulders," he said. "And this is almost a starting over sensation. We're just enjoying it for what it is, and enjoying the moment. We had a kick-butt year, and we got it done. Granted, the questions is, 'Can you get seven' and all of that. But we had that 'Can you keep the streak alive?' thing on our shoulders for ever and ever, that maybe didn't let us enjoy the moment. We were always sort of looking ahead to what the next year might be."

Other things play a part, as well -- including the gratification inherent in returning to the top after two years of watching someone else celebrate, and doing so now as a father with two young daughters. Both of Johnson's girls are in Las Vegas this week, three-year-old Genevieve and three-month-old Lydia. The walk down the red carpet could very well turn into a family portrait session.

"I feel like we started over with a clean sheet of paper in a lot of respects, and are enjoying it a lot like our first championship," Johnson said. "It just has a little bit more significance and weight. And I think for me, it has more meaning due to the time we've had together, the impact it's made for (car owner) Rick (Hendrick) with his 11 championships, and the opportunity I have to share this with my family. ... The parenthood side of thing has changed me a lot, and to go through all this now as a parent, that has a pretty good effect on me."

But he's far from alone. Back in the days of five straight championships, Johnson and his team just wanted to get the formalities of celebration out of the way. 

"Even in Homestead, with all the photos and all that, we couldn't get out of there fast enough with the second, third, fourth, fifth one," he said, referring to photos taken following the season finale. This time around, they hung out photo-bombing one another until the early hours of the next morning.

"We've had a great time from the onset. What's really weird is, we really had a good time in the Chase. We just had a blast. Even when we didn't have the best races, we didn't have the best practices, we had a blast. This whole season has just been so much fun, I didn't want it to end. I really didn't. It's just been a fantastic year," crew chief Chad Knaus said.

"When we won those five championships in a row, we were so concerned with the next championship. I think we went into this year focused on this championship, and we'll focus on next year after we get this one done. I think that's helped us. We had a great time in Homestead, and since we've been out here, it's been nothing but fun. If you've got to be somewhere at 11 -- hell, if you show up at 11:15, oh well. Sorry. That's kind of how we've approached it, and it's worked out really well. We've had a great time."

That's saying something coming from Knaus, as intense a competitor as there is in the garage area. There's just something very different about this Champion's Week for Johnson and the No. 48 team, even if so many of them been through this so many times before.

"I'll be honest, there's a lot I don’t remember about those championships because it was such a whirlwind and you're so busy," Knaus said. "And there's going to be a lot about this one I won't remember. Obviously, alcohol kills your short-term memory, so I'm going to have a lot of things I don’t remember from this one as well."

Johnson may very well agree, as his series of "Hangover"-themed pranks -- the film was set in Las Vegas, after all -- might indicate. Let's just hope the six-time champion doesn't show up to the awards ceremony with a front tooth pulled out.


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