Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2007 | He could be called San Diego’s most dominant athlete in 2006.

His off-season has been a time to celebrate winning the 2006 Nextel Cup as the NASCAR overall season champion. He got the monkey off his back after finishing as the runner-up in 2003 and 2004 and fifth in 2005.

The celebrations included Jimmie Johnson Day in San Diego on Wednesday, as proclaimed by Mayor Jerry Sanders, with additional proclamations from the county and state.

If you didn’t think of Johnson’s name upon reading the first sentence, you’re probably not a NASCAR fan or you didn’t know Johnson grew up in suburban El Cajon. Johnson’s long-time friend and Granite Hills classmate is Marcus Giles, the Padres’ newly acquired second baseman.

It’s more likely you thought of Chargers running back LaDainian Tomlinson, the 2006 NFL MVP.

You wouldn’t think Johnson, 31, and Tomlinson, 27, have much in common, but they do if you listen to them speak about sports and competition with the thrills and disappointments.

I’m not going to pretend to be a NASCAR writer, since my knowledge of cars starts and ends with turning the key in the ignition. And if you’re not a NASCAR fan, you probably would have skipped right over this story without the LT headline.

One reason I’m including the LT comparison is because it makes it easier to write about a foreign subject. But there’s another reason, too.

The more I listened to Johnson explain how he coped with coming up short in past Nextel Cup standings and how he plans to remain grounded as the 2007 season begins next week with his defense of the Daytona 500 (the Super Bowl of NASCAR), the easier it was to hear Tomlinson saying similar words next year if the Chargers were to get the AFC-playoffs-monkey off their backs and win a Super Bowl.

Johnson on facing questions entering the 2006 season about failing to win the Nextel Cup:

“I was always asked if I was fearful I’d never win one,” he said. “I always felt in my heart I would, but I just didn’t know when it would be. I wasn’t as worried about it as the people asking the question, but I had to come up with an answer, because it was asked so much. I knew we’d win at some point, and we got it done.”

Johnson on the pressure he faces as the defending Nextel Cup champion:

I think I’ll be more relaxed this season, and I ‘m hopeful the team will be as well,” he said. “I’m hopeful we can look at our five years together in the sport and all we’ve been through to win the championship. We did a lot of things in 2006 that worked and a lot of that is just doing our jobs. We didn’t get caught up in outside issues. We stayed focused on the right things.”

Can’t you hear Tomlinson, another grounded San Diego athlete, saying something similar after a Super Bowl celebration?

 Here’s more from Johnson that sounds like Tomlinson (or vice-versa):

“When you’re trying to establish yourself, you don’t want to leave a stone untouched,” Johnson said. “But now that we’ve experienced success, we know what stones don’t need to be touched. I just need to stay focused on the right areas. Experience teaches you that.”

Johnson, visiting the Hall of Champions, my day job, for the celebration last week, patiently visited with NASCAR fans and the media. He signed autographs and did TV, radio and print interviews. He didn’t big-time anybody in about a five-hour visit, although this is an age of athletes acting out big-time personas.

 Johnson makes his home in North Carolina, the back-yard of NASCAR, but he said “Jimmie Johnson Day” made him miss San Diego more than he knew.

“It’s great to be back, and I hope to back a lot more in the future,” Johnson said. “Our schedule is insane, and keeps us from making it to the West Coast more often, but as time goes by, with my Chevy dealership in Kearny Mesa, I look forward to doing more in San Diego. My wife and I have done great things with our foundation in North Carolina, and we plan to contribute in the San Diego and the East County area.”

Similarly, Tomlinson and his wife are tireless workers with their foundation and charities that benefits kids and families in Tomlinson’s hometown of Waco, Texas, and in San Diego.

“We’ve done great things with our foundation, and we hope to do more in San Diego.”

Who said that, JJ or LT?

Tom Shanahan is voiceofsandiego.org’s sports columnist. He is the media coordinator for the San Diego Hall of Champions. You can e-mail him at toms@sdhoc.com. Or send a letter to the editor.

Leave a comment

We expect all commenters to be constructive and civil. We reserve the right to delete comments without explanation. You are welcome to flag comments to us. You are welcome to submit an opinion piece for our editors to review.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.