It's not unusual for Jeff Gordon to visit teammate Jimmie Johnson in Victory Lane, but no one would have been surprised if he skipped it following Johnson's win at Phoenix.
The victory was Johnson's 10th of the season and gave him such a firm grasp of the Nextel Cup title, Gordon conceded the championship as soon as he climbed from his car.
But after changing into street clothes, he found his friend in Victory Lane, where he saluted him by bowing to Johnson then waving a white flag as if to say "I surrender."
"I couldn't believe he was there doing that, especially in front of all those photographers," Johnson said Tuesday. "I thought 'You are crazy, man, these pictures are going to be everywhere.' But it just goes to show you his level of class. I don't think in that situation that I would have thought about going to see him in Victory Lane."
Johnson's win was his fourth straight and gave him a comfortable 86-point lead over Gordon in the standings heading into this weekend's finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. He needs only to finish 18th or better to win his second consecutive title and end a season-long rivalry with Gordon, the four-time series champion.
Gordon had his own remarkable year, winning six races and dominating the "regular season" by opening a lead of more than 300 points. Either is a deserving champion, but Johnson isn't capable of feeling sorry for beating his teammate to the prize.
"I don't think it's in a racer's makeup to feel sorry for someone," he said. "I look at how strong we had to be and how hard we've had to push to beat them. They are just great. A great race team, and they certainly are deserving of the title. And it's not over yet. There's still 400 miles left to go in this thing.
"But Jeff and his team have made us a better team, and I know how hard we had to push to beat them."
Q: One to go and a comfortable lead. How are you feeling after your 10th win of the season?
JJ: I'm trying to think about how or why this has all happened, and how we can keep it and recreate it. But I don't know what it is. It's just clicking on all eight cylinders and I'm so stoked to be in this position. It's a situation that a kid would dream of, any athlete in any sport would dream of. But there's still 400 miles left to get the job done. It's just been a dream year.
Q: You've never won at Homestead, but do you think you can pull it off this Sunday and make it five in a row?
JJ: I really do think we can win at Homestead. We really can if we just keep doing what we've been doing.
Q: What's your mind-set like this week?
JJ: I'm sort of just going through the motions right now. I worked out this morning, I'm on my way to the office because I haven't been home in about a month. So I'm going to get some stuff done. I'm going to be in a race car tomorrow, so that's going to be sort of like 'race car therapy' and I'm just trying to stay sharp and stay fresh.
Q: I saw pitcher Mike Hampton in Phoenix with you. Did you guys have a good time?
JJ: Absolutely. He's such a good guy. He only came out for Friday, and then he had to leave because he's getting ready to go play in the Mexican Leagues. I'm just happy to see him feeling better and recovering from the issues he's had. I've only known him through his injuries, so it's just great to see him playing ball again.
Q: You draw a lot of heat from all your famous friends this time of the year. Who can we expect to see in Miami?
JJ: We've got a lot of different plans. Nick Lachey will probably show up. I am not sure about Brian and Marcus Giles. I think Brian is getting married this weekend? Or he did just get married? At one point they were coming, but I am not sure and I've been trying to lay low. My voicemail box is probably full.
Q: You are on the verge of consecutive championships. Where does that put you in the sport?
JJ: It's tough thing to rank yourself. I'm excited that we've been able to race and compete and get people thinking about us in the upper echelon of NASCAR, and it's sort of made me wonder how can I leave a legacy behind in the sport and be talked about when I am out of the car. It blows me away from all the goals I ever set in my life because it is extremely difficult to win one and to win two is just unreal. It puts you just at the top of the top and makes me wonder if I was able to win three or four ... it's just impossible to fathom what it means now. I suppose the simplicity of it is I want to be one of the best. As I am older and my career slows down, the stats and where I stand in my career will become more important.
Q: What were your early goals?
JJ: I just wanted to keep a job. Jeff was coming off a championship and I was getting all his hand-me downs, stuff that was proven and able to win. I was nervous and didn't know what was going to happen. I just wanted to keep my job."
Q: And now?
JJ: Just trying to improve in the win column. Rusty (Wallace) is up there in the 50s. I think what Jeff has done to get to 81 is just impossible to reach in the new era. Those kind of numbers are going to be so tough to beat. But maybe we can get there.
Q: Do you think you are finally out of Jeff's shadow?
JJ: I really think so. Over the years we have clearly defined ourselves. We do have similarities and drive for the same team, but we are different people and we are experiencing different things in life. As the years have gone on, we've done a good job of differentiating ourselves and showing that I am not Jeff Gordon.