Back-to-back championships put Johnson in elite company

NEW YORK -- Jimmie Johnson knows the routine now. The second time around as the main attraction of NASCAR's celebration week always is easier than the first.

A week in Manhattan as the toast of the town comes to a glittering culmination Friday night at the Waldorf-Astoria (ESPN Classic, 9 p.m. ET).

Johnson felt a little out of place one year ago at the Nextel Cup Banquet, receiving all the praises that came with his first championship.

This time, he knows he belongs.

"I'm more confident about who I am and where I fit in the sport," Johnson said. "Even after winning the championship last year, I was still finding my role. I still was a little passive."

A little passive? Johnson was like a lamb in a petting zoo, just happy to be the center of attention without needing to show off over it.

Johnson felt a little lucky. He doesn't feel lucky any more.

Johnson feels successful. He feels he has earned his place on that stage. Johnson can stand with the best now.

"People think a guy can get lucky and win one championship," said Nextel Cup director John Darby. "Racers know that isn't true, but back-to-back championships removes any thought of luck."

Johnson won 10 races this year, including four in a row in the final half of the Chase.

Nothing passive about it. Johnson went for it down the stretch, taking chances with aggressive moves to win races.

The bold approach made him the 2008 champion and left teammate Jeff Gordon the runner-up.

It also changed the way people view Johnson. The man inside the car isn't the man you see outside the car.

"Sometimes it's tough for people to understand me," Johnson said. "I'm so quiet and reserved. I've always been more laid-back than uptight, but in some ways, I think that helps me in championship situations."

It's Johnson's version of coolness under pressure. Nothing rattles him. Johnson makes it all look easy, which works against him.

He's almost too perfect. Johnson is polite, handsome, polished, reserved, clean-cut and considerate.

In other words, a little boring, but he's OK with that.

"I just want to do a good job representing the sport," Johnson said. "I want to show we're stand-up people and tough competitors."

But Johnson also feels he can step out a little now. He's the big boy on the NASCAR block. He believes his level of success will enable him to become more assertive.

"I didn't feel that was right last year," Johnson said. "But as great things keep happening, I feel like I can step up where I see fit."

Johnson has a chance to step up on the racetrack next season and accomplish something that hasn't happened in 30 years. He can become the second driver in history to win three consecutive Cup titles.

Cale Yarborough is the only man to do it, winning championships in 1976, '77 and '78.

"Jimmie was dominating this year," said NASCAR chairman Brian France. "I don't want to put too much pressure on him, but maybe he's going to have a dynasty."

The reluctant hero in 2006 now hears talk of his place in racing history at the end of 2007. A guaranteed spot in the new NASCAR Hall of Fame would come with a third straight title in 2008.

"That would be unbelievable," Johnson said. "But 2008 is a whole new set of circumstances. We know we have a tough road ahead of us."

Now is not the time to contemplate that hurdle. Johnson will proudly sit on stage Friday night with his wife Chandra, hearing all the kind words and collecting all the rewards that come with a second Cup title.

Then it's off to London to compete in the Race of Champions Nation's Cup at historic Wembley Stadium.

Johnson missed the event last year because he fell off the roof of a golf cart and broke his wrist.

A very un-Johnson-like moment for a guy who rarely shows his wild side. He'll try not to break any bones this time, but Johnson is learning to enjoy his lofty status.

"By the time we got to the awards banquet last year, I was worn out," he said. "I was in bed way before I should have been in bed. So this year I've learned to pace myself."

Most drivers never get the chance to learn those lessons. Only 15 men in NASCAR history have won two or more Cup championships.

And back-to-back Nextel Cup titles don't happen often. The last time was Jeff Gordon nine years ago.

So Johnson finds himself in a much different position today than one year ago. In the process of becoming a two-time champ, he's a bit of a different person as well, but in a good way.

"I'm not one to say I deserve this respect or I deserve this attention," Johnson said. "But we accomplished a lot and you start to see another perspective. I believe in myself."

Johnson now knows he belongs with the best, a place he never expected to be.

Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. He can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.