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Johnson appreciates second victory lap more

NEW YORK - Jimmie Johnson knew this year's trip to New York was going to be different from the moment he began packing.

'Even how you dress was stressful last year, and this year it's been easy because we've been there once,' a smiling and relaxed Johnson said Wednesday in the midst of a whirlwind of NASCAR Champion's Week activities in the big city.

'That sounds ridiculous, I suppose, but when you don't wear suits all the time and you're not dressed up very much, you don't want to look like a fool and out of place. And you want to represent the sport well. It was a lot easier to pick out the right clothes this time.'

Johnson, who had come close to winning the Nextel Cup title several times before, finally broke through last year.

As he thought back to his week of TV appearances, scads of interviews, numerous special events and, finally, the big, formal award banquet on Friday night, Johnson just shook his head.

'It was like being on a long ride - enjoyable but dizzying,' Johnson said.

Chandra Johnson, Jimmie's wife, felt it, too.

'Last year was such a whirlwind, we were overwhelmed,' she said. 'I don't want to take anything away from last year, because it was so great to win the first championship, but this year we're savoring it a little more. Since we know what to expect, we can log the memories away a little better.'

And she's enjoying watching her husband really get into the celebration this time around.

'I think he's just a little bit more comfortable in his skin in front of the media, so I think that's pretty cool to watch because he seems like he knows what's going on a little more and he's more comfortable,' she said. 'Once you know what to expect, things seem to just run a little more smoothly, whereas before it was kind of like deer in headlights.'

Johnson's activities began with a small dinner Sunday night in the executive dining room of the famed Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, where many of this week's events take place and where it culminated last year with the champion collecting a record-setting $15,770,125.

This year's payout may be even bigger.

'NASCAR does this little dinner down in the basement, in the executive dining room,' Johnson explained. 'It's to welcome the championship driver and crew chief and warn us about the week that we have ahead and how busy it's going to be, and to thank us in advance for coming up and trying to do a good job for the sport.'

He even had time later that night for a friendly poker game.

'I think I came in fourth, but it really doesn't matter because (NASCAR president) Mike Helton told everybody before we started all the money was going to the Jimmie Johnson Foundation,' Johnson said.

Asked his favorite part of last year's Champion's Week, Johnson said, 'I really enjoyed the photo ops, like the one in Times Square, because it gave me time to stop and breathe and enjoy what was going on.'

Another event the repeat champion enjoys is driving his race car through the streets of New York at the front of the Chase for the championship contenders. He did that again Wednesday morning, with thousands of curious New Yorkers and tourists lining the barricaded midtown streets.

'I like being at the head of the line,' Johnson said when asked the best part of the drive. 'I was just enjoying the experience this morning, looking around watching the fans. In the back of my mind, though, I'm always thinking about the traffic that we're causing. It was probably tough on a lot of people with their commutes.'

One thing Johnson definitely didn't find fun last year was writing his speech for the awards dinner, the crowning moment of the big week.

This year, though, no problem.

'I'm already prepared,' he said, grinning. 'I have it written and I've practiced it a few times and feel more comfortable about my moment on stage.

'To be honest, I finally smile after that speech, knowing my responsibilities are over and I can relax and just have some fun.'