Jimmie Johnson has had time to thaw out since his four-day, eight-state, cross-country adventure that included a visit to David Letterman’s nippy green room on Tuesday night.
“I didn’t see a lot of it because I was being held off to the side before going in,” Johnson said of the "Late Show" taping. “I really couldn’t hear much of what was going (on) out there to be honest. I was down there freezing my butt off on the side.”
But through the experience, the five-time Sprint Cup champion also witnessed fans warming to NASCAR. The sport is coming off its highest-rated and most-watched Daytona 500 since 2008 – coincidentally when the Car of Tomorrow was introduced into Cup competition full time.
Despite being hounded by TMZ paparazzi, Johnson described the overall experience as “awesome.”
“To be a part of all of it — honestly, through the championships that I’ve won and the ’06 500 — there was always great excitement and buzz surrounding our sport attending these events,” Johnson said as he was being ushered from the Phoenix International Raceway suite at Thursday night’s Coyotes game.
“But there was a buzz that I haven’t seen before. I’m excited for our sport right now. There are a lot of great things going on. TMZ chased me down twice. Our sport is hopefully transitioning into mainstream and the whole TMZ factor says that to me more than anything.”
Johnson is cognizant that it’s not just his celebrity causing a stir. Danica Patrick’s success during Speedweeks — starting with her pole-winning lap in time trials to her first top-10 Cup finish in not just any race but the Daytona 500 – served as a magnet for current fans as well as newcomers. Certainly, the debut of the new Generation 6 car in addition to the Danica effect is measureable.
“I don’t know how much, but yes, absolutely,” Johnson said. “I think the Gen-6 car and the positive thoughts of the drivers, the owners, the manufacturers — there’s a lot of momentum. We were seeing some good momentum through the end of last year with the ad buys increasing on TV and all that. I don’t know what’s solely responsible for it, but I like it. It’s a great shot in the arm for our sport.”
Last year’s Chase for the Sprint Cup championship that pitted the 37-year-old veteran against the brash Brad Keselowski, now 29, piqued renewed interest from both disenchanted and fair-weather fans. The battle between the established commodity versus the upstart provided a wealth of storylines. But Johnson doesn’t want to limit the list of competitors that attract supporters to the sport. He feels there are a variety of different characters to choose from.
“(Tony) Stewart, (Jeff) Gordon — you go through and we have a lot of different personalities,” Johnson said. “It’s all being showcased. I think (Clint) Bowyer is emerging as a popular face and voice in our sport and hitting a great fan base. There’s not just a guy. There’s five or six guys and a girl that are really representing the sport well and adding a lot of flair for it."
On Friday, it will be back to business for Johnson. The Hendrick Motorsports driver hasn’t had time since leaving Daytona on Monday to do his weekly team debrief or his daily workout — which would come in handy since Johnson will perform double duty this weekend between the Sprint Cup in his regular role and the Nationwide Series for JR Motorsports. It will be just Johnson’s second NNS start since 2008.
For Johnson, his day job will seem like a vacation after this week’s media blitz.
“You have no idea,” Johnson said. “I’m so freaking tired. (Wednesday) we had our national sales meeting with Lowe’s, so we had 3,000 store managers in a huge, huge venue in Las Vegas. We had Faith Hill and Tim McGraw sing so I had a chance to have a little fun and see some great friends at Lowe’s. Went and hit the tables a little bit. I’m tired, ready to shut it down.
“I haven’t had a chance to train, do my team debrief, get prepped or our team prepped for this race. (Crew chief) Chad (Knaus has) cut me some slack clearly for obvious reasons, but it’s weird to be completely out of your routine. I’m a routine guy.”