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Johnson happy to be back on track at Daytona

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (Jan. 8, 2008) – A champion belongs behind the wheel.

That’s what reigning and two-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson has decided about off-seasons.

His ended promptly at 9 a.m. Monday with the first session of NASCAR Preseason Thunder—NASCAR’s annual January tests—and no one was happier to crawl off his couch.

“I enjoyed myself,” Johnson said of his second consecutive series title and the subsequent holidays. “But I’m like, all right, there’s only so much celebrating you can do.  There are only so many phone calls and friends you can talk to, only so much time you can spend on the couch, and it’s time to get back in the car.”

The 2008 season officially begins with the 50th running of the Daytona 500 on Feb. 17, but NASCAR Sprint Cup teams began the march toward that milestone on Monday at Daytona International Speedway. Those that were in odd-number positions in the car owner standings as of July 17, 2007, will test through Wednesday, Jan. 9.

The Daytona 500 also marks the first Daytona event for NASCAR’s new race car, and Johnson said he and crew chief Chad Knaus were delighted with their results following Monday’s morning session.

“First time being here on such a rough surface, there’s a lot of speed in making the car drive right,” Johnson said during a lunch-break visit to the Daytona infield media center. “It’s been fun. I didn’t expect today to be this much fun and really be this challenging as a driver and challenging as a team in finding the right setup and balance of the car.”

Back to that off-season: Johnson also likes to be behind the wheel of other race cars, especially overseas.

In December, he participated in the Race of Champions in London. While he admits he didn’t do very well in this particular competition, he says he enjoyed the entire experience—his first English foray—which included an off-beat, self-guided tour of London landmarks.

Channeling the movie European Vacation, he says he and wife Chandra unintentionally mimicked a scene where the stars get stuck in a tour taxi.

“We’re driving around and everything’s closed up,” Johnson said. “My wife was in the car, too, and we’re driving along and she goes, ‘There’s Big Ben—there’s Parliament.’”

And when a champion isn’t behind the wheel, a golf club isn’t a poor substitute—particularly at hallowed August National.

“I had no business being there with my golf game,” Johnson says of the two-day, mid-December pilgrimage with friends, “but it was a lot of fun to see it and experience it.”

He did so with a 94 one day and a 97 the next, all from the member tees. Augusta’s Par 3 course tagged him a bit, but walking Augusta’s greens and watching a friend’s hole-in-one on No. 6 made up for the scoring.

As 2008 looms, Johnson acknowledges the challenge of a “three-peat.” Only one driver—Cale Yarborough—has won three consecutive NASCAR Sprint Cup titles (1976-78), and Johnson knows the garage bulls-eye sits squarely on his No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet.

“It would be unbelievable,” he said of claiming three consecutive titles. “I think every year I look for different things to motivate me. In a sense, chasing history does just that. I would love to win three in a row and be one of two guys to ever do that.”