Jimmie Johnson at Home in Big Apple

NEW YORK (AP) _ Times Square has never seemed quite so vibrant to Jimmie Johnson. <br/><br/>A short drive through the central part of Manhattan by NASCAR&#39;s top 10 drivers in their race cars has already

Thursday, November 30th 2006, 7:58 am

By: News On 6

NEW YORK (AP) _ Times Square has never seemed quite so vibrant to Jimmie Johnson.

A short drive through the central part of Manhattan by NASCAR's top 10 drivers in their race cars has already become part of ``Champion's Week'' in New York _ a celebration of the new Nextel Cup champion.

Johnson, who finally won the title after four years of flirting with the honor, was at the head of that parade Wednesday morning as the roaring, rolling billboards that are NASCAR stock cars made their way through the streets, watched by throngs of people.

``I've been part of that since the beginning, but the crowds just keep growing every year,'' Johnson said. ``I couldn't believe how many NASCAR fans were out there this morning. We had to get there early, too, to get ready for `Good Morning America,' and there was a huge crowd there already. That surprised me.''

Since wrapping up the title at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Nov. 19, Johnson's life has been a whirlwind of celebrations and media events. It's not going to stop until after Friday night's annual awards ceremony, where he will collect more than $13 million in prize money and contingency awards.

But it's even more special to Johnson spending the week in New York, where he maintains a home.

``My wife and I love the city, but it's taken on a whole new dimension this week,'' Johnson said Wednesday after a celebratory lunch at New York's famed 21 Club that included team owner Rick Hendrick and crew chief Chad Knaus.

``You know, as a kid growing up, you dream about celebrating a championship like we did on the front straight (at Homestead) and with your team,'' he said. ``Eating at a famous restaurant in a suit and tie and being surrounded by media isn't part of that dream. But it's fun and I'm enjoying that part of it, too.''

Asked his favorite event so far, Johnson said, ``This morning in Times Square. I love that area, but seeing it like that was very special, with all those people. It just all looked different. It's something I'll never forget.''

Johnson is relishing this championship, perhaps more than some other winners have, because he had to overcome his previous failures.

He has never finished worse than fifth and has been second in the points twice _ once coming up just eight points short, the closest 1-2 finish in the three years of the Chase for the championship. A year ago, Johnson was second going into the final race and wound up fifth after a tire failure sent his car into the wall.

The comparisons to longtime NASCAR star Mark Martin, who finished second four times and has never won a title, were inevitable. And Johnson admits he thought about that.

``There's definitely fears of not being a champion and I'm not the only guy who has ever experienced that, or Mark, for that matter,'' Johnson explained. ``Those fears were there. In the back of my mind, I'm like, `If somebody called me Mark Martin would I have a problem with that? Hell no. That guy is a rock star.'

``Everybody in our sport thinks of Mark Martin in a positive light and you have a lot of respect for him. I know he would love the trophy. There's a story that the guy has been so successful in our sport and doesn't have it, but it's never been a fear for me. As long as I had the respect that Mark has, there wouldn't be a problem with that.''

Hendrick, whose team also has four championships from Jeff Gordon and one from Terry Labonte, said he never doubted Johnson.

``It had to happen,'' the owner of Hendrick Motorsports said. ``What you worry about is them getting so down after missing out last year that they can't come back the next year on their toes to compete.

``And I think what I saw this year with Jimmie and Chad is that the disappointment last year helped this year. ... Jimmie sucked it up every time we'd have a problem. He just got tougher, and Chad did, too. They never got rattled. Disappointed, yeah, but never enough to throw their hands up and give up.''

So, what's next for Johnson?

``The questions never stop,'' Johnson said, grinning. ``It's, `You've won one, why can't you win a second one?' Then, `Why can't you win a third one?' Jeff's going through it now: `Why can't you win a fifth one?'

``So, that pressure's there. But the thing I pay more attention to is the motivation I have inside. I want to do the best I can every year, every week, every race. When that passion fades, it's time to hang it up. That's a long way away.''

Meanwhile, Johnson is determined to enjoy every minute of this special week.

``You never know if it will happen again,'' he said.

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