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Jimmie Johnson a champion's champion

HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- It hit Jimmie Johnson on Thursday as Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart talked smack in a large white tent on South Beach for the Sprint Cup contenders press conference.

And he wasn't there.

"That's when I realized -- it was over," Johnson said later that evening as he mingled in the posh lobby of The Ritz-Carlton before a Juan Pablo Montoya fundraiser.

It's been a strange weekend for the five-time defending champion. For the first time since he drove a full Cup schedule in 2002, Johnson doesn't have a chance to win the title going into the final race at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

His only contribution toward the championship has been advice to points leader Carl Edwards on how to throw a party if he wins it all.

"He told me he'd like to do something, even if he doesn't drink," Johnson said with a laugh.

We keep harping on who will be the better champion, Edwards or Stewart, who trails by three points in the closest race since the Chase format began in 2004. We keep talking about how grateful fans are that anybody but Johnson is going to take home the hardware.

It's a shame.

Johnson represented the sport arguably as effectively as any champion in the history of the sport. He has done it with style, dignity and without controversy, a few suspensions by crew chief Chad Knaus aside.

He's thrown a few legendary champion's parties as well, which is why Edwards sought him for advice.

"Maybe Jimmie would be my party organizer," Edwards said Friday as rain washed out all Cup practice. "I knew when I went back to the motor home, I think it was last year or the year before, and Nick Lachey and his entourage came out of Jimmie's and they got in a limo and went somewhere. I thought, That's gonna be a party, there.

"I don't know what I'll do. That might be one night you'd see the other side of me."

Too bad fans didn't get to see the side of Johnson outside of a race car that is anything but the vanilla label he's been tagged with. Just because he wasn't every man's man like Dale Earnhardt, just because he didn't evoke the popularity of Dale Earnhardt Jr., it doesn't mean he has been a bad champion.

Perhaps now that JJ is passing the torch to somebody else -- at least for a year -- he'll be appreciated more.

At least on the outside. Inside the walls of NASCAR, Johnson's greatness can't be denied, even by a four-time champion.

"It's incredible," Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon said. "I don't think it's something we'll ever see again."

Unless, as Edwards noted, it's by Johnson.

This isn't necessarily the end of an era. It could just be an interruption in it.

"I think this is going to be the year that they learn a lot from what it is like not to win it and show just how good they are to come together and go back out there and get it again," Gordon said.

This season will serve as motivation for Johnson and Knaus, whom Johnson says isn't going anywhere despite their differences over the first 35 races. Johnson will be motivated even more when he's seated on the floor level at the Dec. 2 champion's banquet in Las Vegas rather than on the main stage.

"I am sure we will leave the banquet highly motivated," Johnson said. "Motivation comes easy for us."

Championships seemingly have come easily for Johnson. He won them in almost every imaginable way, from dominating start to finish to rallying from seemingly insurmountable deficits.

Johnson did it with such ease. Each time he sat at the media center podium as champion after the final race, nobody was surprised.

The surprise came when Johnson began his Friday press conference saying he wants to "finish up the season on a positive note" just like every other driver who doesn't have a chance.

There was almost a sadness in Johnson's voice. There was also a sense of relief.

Johnson isn't feeling the pressure that Edwards and Stewart feel. He hasn't truthfully felt a lot of pressure the past couple of seasons, coming to expect greatness out of himself and his team.

After all, he's been nicknamed Superman.

But even Superman has his Clark Kent days, and that's what this weekend represents for Johnson.

I am sure we will leave the banquet highly motivated. Motivation comes easy for us.

-- Jimmie Johnson on the Sprint Cup
awards ceremony

This is a time to reminisce before we declare greatness for Edwards or Stewart. This is a time to reflect on a driver who has won 55 races and never finished worse than fifth in the standings, where he sits today.

"There are little things that keep playing through my mind, last time I was sitting at this table, sitting here on top of the world with just winning my fifth ... some of those little parts of last year bleeding over into here and looking at those experiences," Johnson said.

"Just thinking about it like, 'Wow! It really is over.'"

The "wow" should be how Johnson has wowed us, as his peers repeatedly have expressed this weekend. Edwards is wowed by what he has learned observing Johnson the past few years, things he believes will help him win his first title.

Stewart is wowed that he has a chance to bookend Johnson's streak, having been the last non-Johnson champion, in 2005.

"I can say that I have been extremely impressed and overwhelmed with the respect that has been paid to our streak," Johnson said. "I don't know where it goes from there, but every access point I have had to see what the fans are thinking and what people are thinking, there has been a lot of respect passed out."

It is well-deserved.

Unfortunately, many have been so wrapped up in wishing for a new champion that they didn't appreciate the one they had. In a way, even Johnson hasn't had time to stop and appreciate what he's done.

Until Thursday.

Then it hit him like a punch to the gut.

"That was a reality check for me," Johnson said.

Maybe one day the reality that Johnson was a great champion, maybe the greatest ever, will sink in for everyone else.

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter at @DNewtonespn.