DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Jimmie Johnson has never hitched a ride for an afternoon on a champion’s float that snakes down closed city streets.

The professional sports teams bask in the celebration of hundreds of thousands of fans screaming in adulation and spraying beer from sidewalks in a frenzy as confetti flies from the sky.

Johnson’s top reward for winning it all, a rally once at one of his sponsor’s stores a few miles away from his California hometown.

The NASCAR champion traditionally gets a party in victory lane at the season finale and throws a bash at the postseason banquet.

It’s all good fun, but even a seven-time champion wouldn’t mind a parade.

“I have to admit, that would be a nice add to the NASCAR champions schedule,” Johnson said. “It would be really cool.”

Johnson, a regular visitor to the White House when he reigned as NASCAR’s champ, had already initiated his own champion’s tradition a few years back.

Inspired by a chat with NASCAR official Mike Helton and the presidential tradition of leaving a handwritten letter to the successor, Johnson started a champion’s journal.

His first entry was a December 2011 letter to series champion Tony Stewart. Johnson followed championship seasons with notes for Kevin Harvick and 2017 champ Martin Truex Jr., and the keepsake is handed off at the banquet.

“There seems to be a thread when it comes back to me about me having more entries than anyone else,” Johnson said with a laugh outside his motorhome. “That kind of finds its way in each time I get it back.”

The journal is thick enough for quite a few more lines of teasing, well wishes and advice left to be composed. But the question looms for the 42-year-old Johnson, can he still fill the blank pages left as he comes off the worst season of his career?

Or, is the handwriting on the wall that a new crop of stars is ready to deny Johnson another title for as many years as he has left?

Believe that at your own risk.

“I signed up for three more years and I feel like I have the team and the ability to win all three of them,” Johnson said. “We won five in a row and I want to believe in three in a row.”

Johnson was never really a serious contender in 2017 to push past Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty and win his record eighth NASCAR crown. He won three races (but none after June), had a career-worst four top-fives and finished 10th in the standings.

There are about 30 other drivers in the Daytona 500 field who would love to craft that kind of season. At Hendrick Motorsports, long the class organization of NASCAR, Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus were considered underachievers with the No. 48 Chevrolet.

The Chevy ran slower in the second half of the season, and the team could never click and go on their traditional late-season surge; consider he won three of the final seven races in ‘16 to clinch his seventh championship.

“That was the first time at Hendrick that I’ve had that happen,” Johnson said. “I couldn’t have asked anything more from anybody on the team. Everybody was all in. That’s where the frustration comes from.”

The struggles did nothing to deter the Hendrick lifer from signing a three-year contract extension that should keep him with the team through 2020. Johnson, whose 83 wins are tied for sixth on the NASCAR career Cup series list, was already the top dog at Hendrick.

Now, he’s the oldest dog on the Hendrick block, trying to teach his three 20-something teammates new tricks.

Daytona 500 pole-sitter Alex Bowman is 24. Cup rookie William Byron is 20. Chase Elliott is 22.

The trio’s combined Cup wins: 0.

But the nicknames for the two-time Daytona 500 winner are adding up.

“We call him Grandpa every now and then,” Bowman said.

“I would say Uncle Jimmie,” Elliott said.

For a stately veteran, Johnson can still show the young’uns a good time. Johnson, a ski junkie in Aspen, Colorado, hit the slopes with Elliott before they hit the town for a couple of nights.

“I even heard him say, ‘Wow this is what 40 looks like. Not bad,’” Johnson said. “I guess we can still have enough fun for a 22-year-old and make it cool.”

Johnson tweeted a photo of himself from behind the wheel of his family car with Bowman and Byron tagging along in car seats.

Johnson, though, is steadfast that he will do his part to shape the next generation of Hendrick stars into regular challengers for checkered flags. He invites teammates into the hauler for chats, talks game plans with the other crew chiefs, and the fitness freak has even suggested healthy diet tips.

“Jimmie loves that role, and I think these guys will tell you he’s there,” team owner Rick Hendrick said.

Copyright 2018 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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