DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (Jan. 7, 2008) -- A champion belongs behind the wheel.
That's what reigning and two-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson (No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet) 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. Last 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), Johnson knows the garage bulls-eye sits squarely on his No. 48.
"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."
Jeff Gordon Ready To Pursue Fifth Title ... Following his Hendrick Motorsports teammate to the Daytona infield media center microphone on Monday was four-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Jeff Gordon (No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet).
Prior to taking his seat, he posed for a photo with the gold-plated Harley J. Earl trophy destined for the winner of the 50th Daytona 500.
"You always want to win the Daytona 500," said Gordon, a three-time victor. "It's the ultimate. It's certainly cool when I come in here and I see the trophy. It makes for a lot of incentive. I'm fortunate to have a few of these, but none of them have gold on it."
As last season's series runner-up, he aims to contend for his fifth title in 2008.
"I think when you have the type of year that we had last year and you come up a little bit short," Gordon said, "especially with your teammate, I think it just makes you that much hungrier to go out there and try to get another one."
Meanwhile, Gordon's off-season was his first with baby daughter Ella.
"I've had a chance to get away and relax," he said, "spend time as a dad, with my family. I'm certainly energized and ready to go. Things are going well so far today. I'm looking forward to the next couple days and see what we've got."
In The House: Dale Earnhardt Jr. Supports Teammates ... He won't hit Daytona's high banks until next week, when NASCAR Sprint Cup teams that were in even-number positions in the car owner standings as of July 17, 2007, will test Jan. 14-16, but Dale Earnhardt Jr. (No. 88 Mountain Dew AMP/National Guard Chevrolet) roamed the garage Monday in support of Gordon, Johnson and Casey Mears (No. 5 Kellogg's/CARQUEST Chevrolet).
The 2008 season will be Earnhardt's first at Hendrick Motorsports, following a highly-publicized move from Dale Earnhardt Inc.
"Most drivers, if they're not here testing, they don't want to be here," Gordon said. "So I was surprised. I think it says a lot. And it's smart, you know, on his part. So I'm really proud of him for doing that because he's going to be here without his teammates next week."
"For him to come down, show the team how committed he is to being up front, and how committed he is to winning races and championships, says a lot," Johnson said. "It says a lot to the team, his teammates, to the team members and I think to the racing public, that he's down here, ready to go and ready to get after it."
Pit Stops ... Casey Mears was Monday's early bird, the first driver to turn 2008 test laps at Daytona. He sped down pit road at 9 a.m., with many of his peers following soon afterward. ... Johnson led Monday's morning session with a top speed of 184.782 mph and lap time of 48.706 seconds. Mears was second at 184.574 (48.761 seconds). Mears also had the third-fastest lap of 183.572 (49.027 seconds), while newcomer and former Formula 1 champion Jacques Villeneuve (No. 27 Bill Davis Racing Toyota) was fourth at 183.329 mph (49.092 seconds). Second-year driver AJ Allmendinger (No. 84 Red Bull Toyota) was fifth at 183.296 mph (49.101 seconds).
NASCAR Vice President of Competition Robin Pemberton said officials were pleased with Monday's results.
"It's been a really smooth day so far," he said. "Speeds are about what we need to see. It's been very uneventful, which is always good."
Fan Fest Offers Driver Q&As, Entertainment ... Along with the opportunity to watch this week's NASCAR Preseason Thunder, fans can enjoy an afternoon and evening at Daytona's Sprint FANZONE on Tuesday, Jan. 8. Among the Fan Fest activities: Driver question-and-answer sessions, show cars, bands, a silent auction, displays and pit-stop demonstrations. Cost is $15 per session. Fans can watch each day's test at no cost, beginning at 9 a.m.
What: NASCAR Preseason Thunder testing for the 2008 Daytona 500
Where: Daytona International Speedway.
Track Layout: 2.5-mile tri-oval.
When: Monday, Jan. 7 through Wednesday, Jan. 9.
Times: 9 a.m. until 5 p.m.
Who: David Reutimann, Clint Bowyer, Martin Truex Jr., Kurt Busch, Casey Mears, Robby Gordon, Mark Martin, Greg Biffle, Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch, Elliott Sadler, Jeff Gordon, Jacques Villeneuve, Travis Kvapil, Scott Wimmer, Reed Sorenson, Juan Pablo Montoya, Kyle Petty, Jimmie Johnson, Jeremy Mayfield, Joe Nemechek, AJ Allmendinger, J.J. Yeley, Jason Keller and Carl Edwards.