Despite hectic schedule, Daytona 500 winner enjoying spotlight

Associated Press photo by LM OteroNASCAR driver Jimmie Johnson speaks to reporters during a media availability event Wednesday at the House of Blues in Dallas.
Associated Press photo by LM OteroNASCAR driver Jimmie Johnson speaks to reporters during a media availability event Wednesday at the House of Blues in Dallas.

DALLAS — Jimmie Johnson will have covered all four time zones and five states on his Daytona 500 victory tour by the time he climbs in the car for the first of two races in Phoenix this weekend.

To the victor go the toils, although that’s hardly the way the five-time Sprint Cup champion views things.

“I know what time zone I’m in,” Johnson said Wednesday during a stop in Dallas to promote the April race in Texas. “I’m a little confused on days. Not much sleep, but some of that is self-induced. But it’s been a very fun ride.”

If Johnson was feeling a little road weary, maybe a pep rally with primary sponsor Lowe’s will help.

There was double cause for celebration Wednesday night in Las Vegas after Johnson’s Hendrick Motorsports No. 48 team announced a two-year extension with the only primary sponsor Johnson has ever had.

The new contract runs through 2015, and the announcement happened to coincide with a major sales meeting.

“I’ll be in front of 5,000 store managers, and they treat me like Elvis,” Johnson told The Associated Press. “It’s a great relationship.”

The Daytona victory celebration started with an impromptu Harlem Shake video, followed by the early Monday morning ritual of turning in the winning car for display at the Daytona track.

Then it was on to Connecticut for part of a day, and New York overnight for a full day of media engagements Tuesday.

Johnson and his publicity team landed in the Dallas area Tuesday night, and he was back at it Wednesday before hopping a plane to Vegas. He’ll be in Los Angeles on Thursday before finally getting back to the business of racing Friday. He’s running the Nationwide race Saturday and will be trying Sunday for a series-best 62nd victory since his rookie year in 2002.

After his first Daytona victory in 2006, Johnson remembers the following week as busy.

Just not quite this busy.

“I think that NASCAR has worked very hard to get us in major markets, and people want to see us,” Johnson said. “They want to see the winner, want to talk to the winner. I think there’s more interest today than what I personally had and what our sport had in 2006.”

By the time he gets to Phoenix, Johnson will have a lot of catching up to do. He says Tuesday is normally “download” day, when he goes over the previous week and looks ahead to the next one with crew chief Chad Knaus and the rest of his team. Instead, he was chatting up David Letterman.

“So I feel a little removed and not really in the space to go racing in Phoenix,” he said. “But it’s for good reason, and Chad’s going to cut me some slack and I’ll have to catch up Friday when I get to the track.”

Knaus doesn’t really feel the need to cut his driver any slack.

“Jimmie does a very good job of balancing that out,” Knaus said. “He’ll be on point when it comes time for Phoenix.”

Johnson’s first Daytona win sparked the first of five consecutive championship seasons through 2010. He had no way to compare a Daytona win and a series title then. Now that he can compare, he better understands the scope of a win at the so-called Super Bowl of NASCAR.

“So to experience this after the five championships, what I’m getting at is this is like winning a championship,” Johnson said.

“I’m just as busy and there’s just as much reach for myself, my sponsors, my team, as it did from winning a championship. It’s amazing the impact of this single event.”