NEW YORK — In the two weeks since Jimmie Johnson wrapped up his record-tying third straight NASCAR championship, he tried, but failed to reach Cale Yarborough.
Johnson wanted Yarborough, the only other driver in NASCAR history to win three consecutive titles, to be his personal guest at the season-ending awards ceremony to help celebrate their remarkable feats.
“I tried to get up with him, and just never could,” Johnson said of the 69-year-old Yarborough.
But NASCAR had a surprise in store for its reigning champion.
When chairman Brian France took to the stage at the Waldorf-Astoria to present Johnson with his championship ring, he turned the task over to a surprise guest: Yarborough himself, who had quietly sat through Friday night’s ceremony near the back of the ballroom and only made his way to the stage when the lights dimmed before the presentation.
Johnson looked genuinely shocked.
“You dog!” he said to Yarborough after the ceremony. “They said you had plans and couldn’t come.”
Very few did.
Yarborough, who tends to his business ventures in South Carolina, has stayed out of the spotlight since his 1988 retirement. He works two days a week at an office in one of his car dealerships, but spends most of his time building — by himself — a 35-acre lake on his 4,000-acre plantation.
“I got plenty to do,” he said. “I dig and haul the dirt and make a mountain out of it.”
Johnson’s pursuit of his 30-year record brought Yarborough back into the spotlight, but he seemed a reluctant participant down the final stretch and turned down an offer to attend the Nov. 18 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
The awards ceremony, which Yarborough had not attended in years, was a different story.
“I wanted to be part of Jimmie’s celebration,” said Yarborough, who won his titles from 1976-78. “Only two of us in 60 years had done this. I needed to be a part of it. I enjoyed it very much.”
Did he ever.
Yarborough was the star of the four-hour affair, drawing a standing ovation during his introduction then bringing down the house with a humorous speech.
He quipped that being back among old friends had given him back his racing spirit, and told winning car owner Rick Hendrick he’d be interested in driving again if Hendrick had a good ride available for an old man.
And he graciously welcomed Johnson into the record book, but warned he’ll root against his pursuit of a fourth straight title.
“Somebody finally did it. I hope Jimmie realizes that NASCAR is 60 years old and there’s only two of us who have done it in 60 years. That’s a rare champion,” Yarborough said. “All good records are meant to be broken. But tied. Tied, really, is all he’s done.
“If anybody was to tie my record, I’m glad Jimmie did it. Just skip one year and we’ll be good.”
Johnson, who grew up a Yarborough fan, accepted the championship ring and then recalled a childhood story about visiting a Hardee’s and thinking Yarborough, who was sponsored by the fast-food restaurant, would be inside.
“I was devastated,” Johnson said about only getting a hamburger that day.
He eventually got his meeting, several years ago at Talladega Superspeedway, when he and Yarborough chatted at length about the size of Johnson’s feet, of all things.
“He was giving me a hard time about the length of my shoe,” Johnson recalled. “And he made me pull my shoe off so he could see my foot. It was really funny and odd and weird. It was Cale and Darrell Waltrip, and a bunch of guys, just harassing me about my shoe size.”
There was no talk of feet Friday night. Instead, two champions took a moment to toast one another.
“I wanted to see him and hoped at some point I would see him,” Johnson said. “He’s done something that no one else has been able to do, so I’m sure that he was bummed in some ways that somebody else tied it.
“But at the same time I’m sure he’s proud and it’s helped him reflect back on his career and how special his championships are.”