|Johnson (R) and Knaus score again|
Looking back on a season that began with a win in the Daytona 500 and ended on the Champion’s Stage at Homestead Miami Speedway, Johnson said he had hoped to pattern his acceptance speech after those delivered by seven-time champions Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt. Unfortunately, all of Petty’s acceptance speeches came before the era of televised banquet coverage, while Earnhardt’s speech was of surprisingly little use.
“I expected to see some life-changing thing I could attach to my speech,” said Johnson, “some meaningful moment. But (Earnhardt) was just as nervous as the rest of us. He was rattled, got off the stage and walked away.
"It's a terrifying… five or six minutes," acknowledged Johnson. "You want to be sure and thank everyone… and not miss anyone. It seems like 60 minutes.
He need not have worried. The California native hit all the right notes Friday, mixing humility and gratitude with just a touch of teary-eyed emotion.
“I’ve been able to meet and work with so many amazing people along the way,” he said. “These people have molded and shaped me into the person I am today, and the driver I am today. That starts with my mom and dad, my brothers, car-owners, sponsors, drivers that I’ve worn-out asking questions over the years… teammates, family and friends. Thank you all so very much.”
Johnson praised Knaus for his latest championship effort, saying, “We are basically family. Your desire and commitment to make that race car go… I honestly cannot thank you enough for what you do. At the end of the day, you pushing me as hard as you do only makes me better. It’s not fun at times, but it makes me better and I can’t thank you enough for all the support, the friendship and the success we’ve had together.”
He also praised team owner Rick Hendrick for creating “the winningest organization in NASCAR history… by caring for the people you employ and treating us all like family. I am honored to call myself a Hendrick employee.
“This was a huge year on track, but personally, it was so much more,” said Johnson. “Genevieve is now 3½ (years old), and Lydia was born a week before the Chase started. Being a parent is the greatest thing I’ve ever experienced in my life, and I love my girls so very much. We had a lot going on the last 10 weeks, (and) the glue that kept it all together is my wife, Chandi. I couldn’t have done without you.”
Johnson’s teammates wasted no time turned the tables, heaping praise on the six-time titlist. Jeff Gordon – himself a four-time Sprint Cup champion – pegged Johnson and Knaus as "individually, the best at what they do. Together, they're a dominant force that’s hard to beat."
"I'm in awe of what you've accomplished," said team owner Rick Hendrick. "Your focus, dedication and talent are second to none. You're one of the best ever. It's not only that you're a great champion, but you're a great role model."
NASCAR Chairman Brian France added a touch of humor to the proceedings while presenting Johnson with his traditional champion’s diamond ring. “I’m a pretty young guy,” said France, “and I think it’s entirely possible you’re going to run out of fingers while I’m still at my post. Right now, we’re working on number six. We’ll start a new hand as you make history.”
Championship runner-up Matt Kenseth, meanwhile, urged Johnson to “seriously contemplate retirement. Go buy yourself an island. Hang out with the family and pick up some new hobbies. Take some of that money and enjoy yourself. We’ll all chip-in!”
The six-time champ left little doubt that he’ll be back to defend his title in 2014, however, saying, “Testing will start before we know it and I’m excited for 2014. I think that our Lowe’s Chevrolet SS is going to be awfully fast once again.”
Johnson admitted that he is enjoying this championship more than the five that came before.
“It is different,” he said. “I feel like I’m savoring it much more than I did in the stretch of those five (championships). But I also have to give credit to maturing and growing up some. I think becoming a parent has changed the way I see the world dramatically, and that’s helping me slow this all down and take it in a little differently. (I’m) letting it in and enjoying it, feeling the applause and respect.
“It's very nice to have the spotlight on you. I'm letting it soak in now, and it's pretty cool to experience it that way.”