It's funny how excellence can change a person. Jimmie Johnson grew up in San Diego rooting for the underdog, for a Padres team wearing those brown-and-gold uniforms and a Chargers squad that endured several forgettable seasons following an NFL merger with the AFL.
For the hapless Friars.
For the guys on the short end of the "Holy Roller" game.
But he was loyal. He was a fan.
"It's crazy, because the last few years I have found myself more interested in teams like the Yankees and Patriots, like I have made this subconscious shift to watch dominant players and teams of this time," Johnson said. "I guess deep down, as athletes, we all want to be the ones who get on a championship roll like the Lakers and Bulls once did.
"I'm tripping because in my sport, I'm that guy now. I'm him. And I never saw it coming."
He doesn't give the impression of a front-runner. Rather, there seems to be more to his fascination with how teams and athletes earn their spot on the pinnacle of greatness, more to his interest in those who succeed beyond simply the enjoyment of cheering a winner.
It's as if he slowly but surely is accepting his place atop the NASCAR world, one that was cemented even more with a record fourth straight Cup championship this year.
Jimmie Johnson is to stock car racing what the world's elite athletes are to their particular sports, but he's still a little unsure how to completely shed those brown-and-gold uniforms.
"I've never experienced anything like this," he said. "Just to have my name mentioned alongside the greats of our sport and others. ... It's pretty damn cool."
He will be honored tonight at the Sprint Cup Series Awards Ceremony at Wynn Las Vegas, held again as the standard that all others now chase.
Dale Earnhardt. Jeff Gordon. Richard Petty. Johnson. They are the only drivers to have won four or more Cup titles.
The tough part is dissecting what it means and to whom.
Johnson hardly plays the role of the most popular kid at the high school party following a Friday night football game. He isn't loathed or anything, but more than being treated by NASCAR fans as the star quarterback, he is viewed as the tight end who consistently puts up solid numbers but doesn't stop conversation when walking into a room.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. is the glamour boy.
Kyle Busch is the bad boy.
Johnson is the best boy.
There is a thought that Johnson's achievements -- he is just 34, meaning he might string together an implausible amount of championships while surpassing the all-time mark of seven shared by Earnhardt Sr. and Petty -- won't be fully appreciated until years after he finishes guiding a car in circles at ungodly speeds.
Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe they never will fully accept him, because the one thing (consistency) that has allowed Johnson to rule his sport probably is also what causes fans to reluctantly admire and yet not obsess over him.
I have never cared much for a system that resets points following 26 races, for a transparent format in which drivers finish fifth on a Sunday during the Chase and speak with the elation of the guy who won.
But this is how NASCAR believed it best to decide a champion back in 2004, and even though interest and popularity hasn't spiked as officials then hoped, no one has come close to winning more races and leading more laps than Johnson since the system was implemented.
Everyone plays by the same rules, but only Johnson has completely figured things out.
The same goes for the Car of Tomorrow. Johnson and Hendrick Motorsports have mastered the boxier and safer design in a time when a driver's skill is more important than ever. The cars are the same. The guys driving them are not.
"I really believe it's tougher than ever now to get an edge," Johnson said. "We're always looking for one, always working hard to find that one little thing that can make us better. Competition is closer than ever.
"I want to set new marks. I always set my goals high. I don't want to sound like an idiot and say it would be easy to win eight championships, but I also feel I have years ahead of me, and I'm really now understanding what it takes.
"Do I want to win eight and get the record? Of course I do."
Those brown-and-gold uniforms weren't all that bad.
Excellence, however, is far better.
Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-4618. He also can be heard weeknights from 11 p.m. to 1 a.m. on "The Sports Scribes" on KDWN-AM (720) and www.kdwn.com.