Johnson hasn't forgotten where he came from

NEW YORK -- The 21 Club, from its 10 private dining rooms to the so-dubbed legendary Prohibition-era wine cellar, reeks of elegance and sophistication.

Frank Sinatra had his own table here. Former President Nixon and actress Elizabeth Taylor stored wines here. Movies such as "Wall Street" were filmed here.

Billionaire Donald Trump frequents here.

On the surface it appears the perfect place for the well-groomed, well-spoken Jimmie Johnson, on a whirlwind New York City tour since capturing his first Nextel Cup championship, to spend a Wednesday afternoon having lunch.

From his Hollywood look to his model wife to his multimillion-dollar salary, he exudes what one would expect from the clientele at this exclusive restaurant in the heart of Manhattan.

But this is a long way from the trailer park in El Cajon, Calif., where the 31-year-old Johnson grew up the son of a heavy equipment operator and school bus driver.

It's certainly not what Johnson imagined when he was a kid racing motorcycles and dreaming of winning a championship. Not a Nextel Cup championship, but any championship.

"When I think of the championship, I think of the trophy and the celebration we had on the front stretch," Johnson recalled of his victory party two weeks ago at Homestead-Miami Speedway. "I think of being with my guys.

"When you're fantasizing of a championship, it's not to be in a suit eating at a fancy restaurant surrounded by media."

But Johnson cleans up quite nicely. He looks as comfortable in a dress suit as he does in a driver's suit. He can pick the proper fork to use for his salad as well as he picks the right adjustment for his car.

He says and does all the right things, which may make him the face of NASCAR that the previous two champions of the new playoff system weren't.

Kurt Busch, who won the title in 2004, still struggles to be himself in front of a camera or tape recorder. Last year's champion, Tony Stewart, still has that bad boy image despite his fence-climbing celebrations that have endeared him to many fans.

Johnson is laid back and natural. He can relate to the fan with the school bus converted into a camper because that's where he came from. He can relate to the fan in the corporate suite because he's spent seemingly a lifetime making sure his image is as marketable as his ability to drive.

"To see Jimmie, kind of a bashful guy, sitting in the back of the plane eating a cheeseburger … it's amazing to me watching him grow up, watching him mature," said Hendrick Motorsports owner Rick Hendrick, who has known Johnson since he was 16. "Jimmie, he has had the heart of a champion since he showed up [in 2001]. It was clear-cut that what was important in his life was winning races and winning championships. I haven't seen it that strong in anybody. He's focused. He's a student of what it takes to win."

As fellow Chase driver Jeff Burton said: "He's the perfect champion."

"Jimmie is a guy that every driver, if you asked would he represent this sport, all of us, in a good way, there's no question they'd say yes," Burton said. "He's a high-character guy. He's well-spoken. He's the kind of person you want to represent you as a champion."

But Johnson hasn't forgotten where he came from. He spent most of the past week calling old friends, such as seven-time national motorcross champion Rick Johnson, to say thanks for their part in the championship.

He invited many to attend Friday night's banquet at the Waldorf-Astoria, the final phase of this tour before he and his wife, Chandra, jet off to Paris and unknown parts of the world to get away.

"It's been a long road," said Johnson, who had two runner-up finishes during his first four seasons. "I've done a good job of remembering where I grew up and what I've been through. My parents do a great job of keeping me grounded.

"There's a select group of friends I've had most of my life that keep me in check."

That doesn't mean Johnson doesn't enjoy his riches. After growing up with few frills outside of accessories for his motorcycle, he enjoys the luxury of buying toys such as a phone on which he can connect to his computer and watch television.

He enjoys not having to worry about buying a second one as he did on this day after leaving the phone in the bottom of his wife's pocket book with a leaky bottle of water.

"I certainly had a simple lifestyle growing up," Johnson said.

His lifestyle has changed, but Johnson hasn't. The inner drive that allowed him to rebound from the disappointment of falling short the past four years is still there.

If anything, he believes he and his No. 48 crew will be stronger in years to come.

That's good news to a Californian transplanted in South Carolina who recently topped his Christmas tree with a Johnson doll instead of an angel or star.

Johnson certainly never expected that when dreaming of a title.

"That's hilarious," he said. "And now Lowe's has this inflatable lawn ornament thing … the 48 car with Santa sticking outside the driver's window. We're going to have to get one and stick it on the roof of my house."

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.