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LAS VEGAS — Even those close to Jimmie Johnson didn’t know 23-time Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps was going to introduce him at Friday night’s NASCAR Awards.

But Johnson entered NASCAR’s pantheon in fitting style when Phelps emerged on the stage to honor the seven-time NASCAR champion. Johnson’s latest title, won last month, ties him with Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt Sr. for the most ever.

It was actually the return of a similar gesture after Johnson honored Phelps at a swimming awards ceremony two weeks ago, but the image of greatness recognizing greatness was certainly appropriate for Friday.

In his speech, Johnson told the crowd he wasn’t trying to compare himself to anyone else — nor did he ever set out to do so.

“I’ll never be the King or the Intimidator,” Johnson said. “I’m just a guy from California who wanted to race.”

Johnson got inspiration for that line after watching Earnhardt’s 1994 banquet speech, made in the year of that driver's seventh.

“I was left with the impression he was faced with the questions and discussion about tying the King and who was better,” Johnson said. “He wanted to pay respect to Richard. As soon as I watched it for myself, I knew it was going in my speech.”

The speech concluded the final event in the history of the Sprint Cup Series. Next year Monster Energy will take over sponsorship of NASCAR's premier series; an exact name for the series has yet to be determined.

Follow Gluck on Twitter @jeff_gluck

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