Damon helps Johnson celebrate Cup crown

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NEW YORK - Johnny Damon knows how difficult it can be to win a championship. After all, it took him four years to finally win the World Series with the Yankees.

That's why even he marvels at Jimmie Johnson, who wrapped up an unprecedented fourth consecutive Cup championship on Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

"We haven't seen that in baseball in a very long time," Damon said Tuesday, during a ceremony honoring Johnson at the Empire State Building. "I believe in NASCAR it could be tougher, because every week these guys are going for you. It's kind of like putting on the pinstripes."

Johnson was at Yankee Stadium for Game 1 of the World Series, then watched from afar as the Yankees clinched their record 27th world championship by defeating the Philadelphia Phillies in Game 6. Johnson would have liked to see a couple more games, but he was too busy chasing his own record.

He finally returned to New York this week for another whirlwind celebration filled with interviews, morning show appearances, photographers and other commitments.

In the grand entrance to the Empire State Building, Johnson flipped the switch - as if changing gears in his car - that lit the top of the skyscraper in the familiar blue, yellow and white colors of his Hendrick Motorsports team. He also received a proclamation from the mayor's office designating "Jimmie Johnson Day" in a city where many people don't even own cars.

"I'm not sure what authority comes with my position," Johnson said, "but I think everyone should have the day off and go have margaritas."

Indeed, Johnson is living a charmed life.

The most dominant driver of the decade finished fifth in the season's final race when 25th would have sufficed. He's been in NASCAR's top division for eight years and already his title total trails only the seven won by Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt.

The 34-year-old Californian also gave team owner Rick Hendrick his record 12th overall championship.

"Rick's personality is he doesn't want to feel like the big dog," Johnson said. "He has the mindset he wants to pull for the underdog, because he wants to keep thinking he's the underdog. And he's not."

Sound familiar?

"When we step on the field, we know everybody is giving us their best shot," Damon said, referring to the Yankees. "It's the same way with them."

Damon grew up in Orlando and became a NASCAR fan while watching thousands of fans make pilgrimages to Daytona. As the sport exploded over the past few years and fresh faces like Johnson came onto the scene, Damon became even more enamored of the sport.

He said the Yankees have a fantasy racing league that he tried to join when he arrived in 2006, but Damon learned it was only for coaches and staff. Longtime trainer Gene Monahan, manager Joe Girardi and even former manager Joe Torre have been part of it.

"I like to pop in the office and give them a couple hints," Damon said, smiling widely. "Maybe one day they'll let me in."

One thing is perfectly clear: Johnson doesn't need hints from anybody.

He's been called the NASCAR version of Tiger Woods, Roger Federer and Lance Armstrong. Damon instead compared him to Michael Jordan and John Wooden, who took entire teams and made them into champions.

Along with crew chief Chad Knaus, the No. 48 team may only be getting better.

Johnson signed a five-year deal to drive for Hendrick through 2015, and Knaus has confidently predicted the same rate of success for the next several years. The team won seven races in 2009, including four during the 10-race Chase, and has won 18 of 60 Chase races since the format began.

All of which resulted in a very familiar post-race party Sunday, where Johnson found himself standing on a sofa at 2 a.m. belting out the chorus to Queen.

"They played 'We are the Champions,'" Johnson said, "and you know what? That song doesn't really mean much until you're a champion."


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