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NASCAR: Johnson in comfort zone despite end of streak

Associated Press
CHARLOTTE ó Just a few weeks after winning his first NASCAR championship, Jimmie Johnson was goofing around with his friends when he decided to climb atop a golf cart during a charity event. As he pretended to surf, Johnson fell off the cart and broke his wrist.
Concerned that such a silly incident could tarnish his reputation, or anger his team and sponsors, he lied about the circumstances of the accident.
Of course, the truth eventually came out, and Johnson was even more embarrassed.
So began a journey of personal growth and maturation for one of NASCARís greatest drivers. For some athletes, that means toning down the nightlife and focusing on the job. For Johnson, itís been more about balancing the two sides of personality ó the talented, super ambitious driver and the guy who likes to have a good time.
In the early morning after his fourth championship, Johnson was found asleep on the curb outside his South Beach hotel when the car service arrived to take him to what ended up being a grueling day of media appearances for a hungover champion.
The next year, his first as a father, he rolled his pants legs up and stood in the sand and surf surrounded by his five championship trophies in a quiet moment of reflection at sunrise.
There wonít be such a celebration for Johnson this year. His record run of five consecutive championships came to an end with a whimper last weekend at Phoenix, where he crossed the finish line in 14th and was mathematically eliminated from title contention. Sunday will mark the first time since the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship format began in 2004 that Johnson wonít be eligible to win the title heading into the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
ěIím definitely disappointed, but thatís motor sports,î Johnson said. ěItís a very tough business. What we did over the last five years was absolutely spectacular. Being on top for as long as we have been takes a lot of effort to maintain that.
ěIt just takes a lot out of you. So this will be a nice winter to unplug and relax and dissect the different areas of the race team and come back stronger.î
Nobody has been stronger the last five years ó more, maybe, if you go back to 2003, when he finished second in the final points standings.
He won eight races in 2004, the first year of the Chase, and finished eight points behind champion Kurt Busch. The next year, he went to Homestead ranked second and with leader Tony Stewart in reach, only to crash out of the race with a tire issue and finish a distant fifth in the final standings.
Johnson left Homestead possessed.
ěThe pressure I put on myself to win a championship was so great, it was like life or death in 2006,î Johnson said. ěI watched two great opportunities pass me by in ë04 and ë05, and I wasnít sure I was going to get another chance at a championship. So it was really like life or death for me in ë06. Then when I won one, then came trying to chill out a little bit and learn to enjoy racing and enjoy the challenges and learning how to be more confident and comfortable in my own skin.î
Heís the first to admit itís not been an easy road.
Johnson, a 35-year-old Californian, worked his entire life trying to wow sponsors into giving him the money he needed to pursue a racing career. It required him to be buttoned-up, the consummate professional and constant salesman. It left him guarded, and for a long time didnít help him get the on-track success he craved.
He was collecting a paycheck, but he didnít start picking up wins until he signed with Hendrick Motorsports in late 2001. Even with that big break, Johnson kept a clear distinction between work and play that created the stereotype of a ěplain, vanilla driver.î
Here we are now, five championships, 55 victories and more than $108 million in purse winnings, and Johnson is that guy sparring with hateful fans on Twitter and unafraid to speak his mind.
ěThe last five years, from a professional standpoint, the biggest thing has just been the confidence I now have in my own shoes,î he said. ěThe race track has always been who I am, and I spent the majority of my life as like a ěBî or ěCî driver. You donít build a lot of confidence being a mid-packer.
ěSo being able to prove to myself, to our industry, what Iím capable of, itís helped me gain a lot of confidence in myself, in my role in the sport and how I fit into the sport. Itís also allowed me to have a lot more fun.î
Yet itís still a struggle sometimes, evidenced last month when Johnson said IndyCar should not be racing on ovals in the wake of two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Dan Wheldonís death. He meant high-banked ovals, but because he wasnít clear, and because heís currently the face of motorsports, his words spread throughout the industry and drew heavy criticism from some racing icons.
ěThat was a really tough week for me. I was only speaking out of concern for my friends in the sport, and boy, did it get turned around,î he said. ěItís so conflicting at times because, sometimes, Iíll say or do something and it will go unnoticed. At times my success is criticized, at times my focus is criticized, and thereís all these mixed signals and you never know where the masses are because itís always moving around.
ěMaybe because Iíve always been so far in my head about being concerned about what Iíve said, that, I didnít notice how it could blow up. And as Iíve relaxed a lot more and learned to be comfortable speaking my opinion ó I feel Iíve earned the right to speak my opinion ó you still get these eye-opening moments that are like ëWhoa, that really backfired!íî
Johnson goes into Homestead ranked fifth in the standings, and when Sundayís race concludes, either Carl Edwards or Tony Stewart will officially end his reign. Heís motivated to move up in the standings ó Johnson has never finished lower than fifth in points.

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