Coming off a stellar rookie season, many people pegged Jimmie Johnson as a championship contender for 2003. But the driver from California has learned quickly how tough it can be to repeat success. He brushes aside any notions of a "sophomore jinx" and chooses instead to learn from the tough, inevitable lessons. Johnson recently discussed his road to Winston Cup stardom with Stock Car Racing.

SCR: It's a safe bet to say the results you pulled off last year were something that seemed like a dream. At what point in time did all that success sink in? Johnson: I would say during the winter it started to sink in and I was able to realize what an amazing season we had. To accomplish the things we did with a rookie team was great. I really haven't had the time to sit down and reflect on it all that much. I'm always on the go and always thinking about the next week so I haven't really let it sink in. My mom and the rest of my family have kept the articles and pictures, so I'm sure one day I'll sit down with my kids or grandkids and tell them stories of me in Winston Cup racing.

SCR: How have you managed to handle all the success that you've experienced so quickly?

Johnson: I really didn't have much of a choice. Kevin Harvick called me after I won my first race and told me how my life would never be the same, and he was totally right. There is nothing that you can do to prepare yourself for what comes when you start racing Winston Cup and start having success. You get pulled in so many directions and stretched so thin that you have to put the right people in place and create some structure around the madness, or it will just eat you up and drive you crazy. This is an area that Jeff Gordon has helped me out in, and we have created a schedule that allows me to have some time for myself and fulfill all of the things I need and want to do.

SCR: What was the high point of last season for you? Was it that first Winston Cup victory or the fact that you backed it up with two more wins and ended up fifth in the final point standings? Johnson: I would say backing it up with two victories and finishing in the top five overall at the end of the year. The first win was incredible, but it was a new experience and it was like rush here, rush there. I didn't get a chance to savor the moment because I didn't know what to expect. With the wins at Dover, on the other hand, I knew what was coming and I appreciated them more. And to finish fifth overall is something that very few people thought we could do at the start of the season. I had a great time at the banquet in New York and hopefully we will be going back there for many years to come.

SCR: Your performance left many people expecting you to win a championship soon. Is the team at that level?

Johnson: This team has all of the ingredients to contend for the cham-pionship. We have the support from Hendrick Motorsports and Lowe's, plus we have kept this team intact. These guys, including (crew chief) Chad (Knaus) and I, know what it takes to be a championship contender. We know how much effort and dedication it will take and we are continuing to grow as a team and support each other week in and week out. If we can just cut out the peaks and valleys in our finishes and just remain consistent each week, we'll be championship contenders for a long time to come.