Jimmie Johnson’s peers have some advice for him – or at the very least, some wishful thinking.
“I hope you enjoy your retirement,” Ryan Newman said during NASCAR’s annual awards ceremony Friday night at the Wynn in Las Vegas. The crowd roared.
Nice try, Newman. But he wasn’t alone in his sentiments regarding Johnson, who made history with his fourth consecutive Sprint Cup title this year.
Greg Biffle and Tony Stewart readily jumped on the bandwagon.
“At least just take a vacation for five or 10 years,” said two-time champion Stewart, who offered his half of Stewart-Haas Racing to Johnson to entice him to retire.
Jokes aside, Stewart acknowledged the 48 team shows no signs of slowing down.
“It’s up to us to find a way to beat these guys,” Stewart said, adding that he was the last driver who wasn’t Johnson to claim the championship.
It was a record-breaking year for Johnson and Hendrick Motorsports. Johnson’s fourth straight title gave the organization its 12th NASCAR championship. Hendrick teams also finished first, second and third in the points, a first for a racing organization in NASCAR.
Friday night’s banquet had a few firsts of its own as well. It marked the first time the event had been held in Las Vegas. For the last 28 years, New York had hosted the ceremony. Also for the first time, NASCAR fans were able to take part, with 300 in attendance.
The industry welcomed the change of scenery. Denny Hamlin said he had never seen so many fans gathered for the Victory Lap as he did on Thursday, when the 12 drivers in the Chase paraded their racecars on Vegas’s famous Strip.
Serving as banquet host was comedian/impressionist Frank Caliendo. Entertainment was provided by Escala, an electronic string quartet from England who reached the final of “Britain’s Got Talent” last year, the soon-to-be-broken-up country duo of Brooks & Dunn, and singer-songwriter David Gray. Comedian John Pinette, who performed in last year’s banquet, returned to deliver more of his wry humor.
Caliendo is probably best known for his impressions of John Madden and George W. Bush. In one bit, he demonstrated what it would be like if Madden provided commentary for a NASCAR race. Other bits included Caliendo as a NASCAR fan interviewing former Dallas Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson, mistaking him for the Cup champ with almost the same name, and Caliendo in the persona of Dr. Phil giving “advice” to some of the drivers. To Martin: ''You fake retired so many times Brett Favre thinks you're indecisive.'' To Johnson: “Congratulations, Jimmie, but learn to share. That’s all I’m saying!”
In addition to Johnson, the remaining nine drivers who finished 2009 in the top 10 in points were also recognized, in ascending order of points finish: Kasey Kahne, Newman, Juan Pablo Montoya, Biffle, Stewart, Hamlin, Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin.
Hamlin, considered by many to be Johnson’s top challenger for the title in 2010, joked that since Johnson has won the championship every year Hamlin has been in Cup, “I may be your good luck charm.”
Mark Martin, who finished second to Johnson in points, kidded his teammate, “You sure know how to steal a guy’s thunder, don’t you?” After congratulating the 48 team, Martin told boss Rick Hendrick that he was “a true champion as a person” and wanted to be more like him.
Martin also said the 5 car is “the nicest thing he’s ever been in.” He complimented crew chief Alan Gustafson, saying Gustafson was smarter than he is. He thanked everyone at Hendrick Motorsports and the fans for a remarkable season.
Hendrick himself became emotional after receiving NASCAR’s highest award, the Bill France Award of Excellence. The honor was presented by Betty Jane France, widow of former NASCAR chairman Bill France Jr. Speaking about how much his relationship with the chairman meant to him, Hendrick had to stop to compose himself.
When he did, Hendrick told Johnson he was “constantly raising the bar, and when someone isn’t there to challenge you, you find a way to challenge yourself,” which he proclaimed was “the mark of a true champion.”
Johnson said he was amazed at the comments he had received from those he respected in the sport, referring to himself as an “underdog” in his early career. He complimented his teammate Martin, saying the 50-year-old “pushed me to be the best driver I can be.”
And despite his competitors’ best efforts to convince him into retirement, Johnson doesn’t plan to give up the title anytime soon.
“We’ve won four, so maybe we can win five. And that’s what I’m going to try to do.”