Johnson now among NASCAR’s greatest

 

HOMESTEAD, Fla.  — Jimmie Johnson had the commemorative helmet and a photographer chronicling his every move. He even ran a symbolic seven miles the night before his shot at a seventh championship.

He must have known something special was coming.

Johnson was the dog of the championship contenders in a winner-take-all season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. He needed only to beat three other drivers to tie Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt as drivers with seven titles, but he was the worst of the final four for all but one lap Sunday night.

Johnson was practically gifted his seventh title when Carl Edwards’ aggressive attempt to win the championship ended in a wreck that opened the door for Johnson. He got the restart of his life in overtime, took the lead on the very last lap of the race, won for the first time in his career at Homestead and grabbed that elusive seventh title.

“I had this crazy calmness over myself all day long leading into this,” Johnson said. “Even with us running fifth and the championship looking like it’s not going to be there, I just felt something.”

Most of the race was spent talking about backflips, repeats or a Penske sweep because Johnson just wasn’t as good as contenders Edwards, reigning series champion Kyle Busch or Joey Logano.

Then all that conversation took a back seat to a record-setting — albeit improbable — championship run. The win was the 15th for Hendrick Motorsports and seventh for crew chief Chad Knaus, who now only trails Dale Inman’s record eight.

Johnson’s No. 48 Chevrolet was seized by NASCAR shortly before the race for a last-minute trip through inspection, setting Johnson up for a mind-boggling race in which he never seemed to be a legitimate contender. He had to start last because of the inspection issue and was the worst of the final four, and had no shot until Edwards coughed away the title.

Petty welcomed Johnson to the VIP section of NASCAR’s most exclusive club.

“They set a goal to get where they are and circumstances and fate made it a reality,” Petty said. “Jimmie is a great champion and this is really good for our sport.”

He was also feted by Hendrick Motorsports teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr., who represented his late father in victory lane.

“I told Jimmie I wish Dad was here to shake his hand,” Earnhardt said. “Dad would think he’s such a bad-ass. He’s such a great race car driver. How he won this thing tonight, I don’t think a lot of people know, he can will himself to get (his all) out of a car when it matters. There’s a lot of circumstance that played into it, but he put himself in that position.”

Edwards was in position to win until a caution with 10 laps remaining set up a wild sequence that ruined his title hopes. Edwards tried to block Logano on the restart, wound up wrecked, and it was Johnson who drove through the carnage to take the championship lead.

Johnson withstood two more restarts, and dedicated the final two attempts at the win to the late Ricky Hendrick, who was one of 10 friends and family members killed in a 2004 plane crash.

“My heart was full because I was thinking of some loved ones like Ricky Hendrick and his influence,” he said. “Something happened from above.”

Johnson drove the entire 10-race Chase with a tribute helmet to Earnhardt and Petty, the Hall of Famer drivers he’s been chasing since he won his sixth title in 2013. Immediately after the race, he gifted the helmet to three-time champion Tony Stewart, who retired at the end of the race.

Drivers have been giving Stewart special helmets the last month, but Johnson had earmarked this one for the driver forever known as “Smoke.”

“I promised him I’d give him a helmet, I wanted to wait and see if I could give him this one,” Johnson said. “He doesn’t really want it. He said if I want it back, I can have it back, but I promised I’d give him a helmet.”

The title was there for the taking for Edwards until the fateful sequence that changed history.

He was leading when Dylan Lupton brought out a caution with 15 laps remaining, and it forced Edwards to hold off the competition on a restart with 10 to go.

Logano, so masterful on restarts for two years now, tried to dart around Edwards on the bottom. Edwards refused to yield and tried to fend off the move by blocking Logano low.  Contact between the two sent Edwards hard into an interior wall, then all the way across the track for a second hit. He had been the most dominant driver of the Chase contenders, but was left with a wrecked car.

“He came down right in front of me,” Logano said on his radio.

Edwards stood on the track and watched the replay of the accident, and appeared to mutter “damn,” hands on hips, before he began a long walk to Logano’s pit box. Once there, he stopped at Logano’s pit box before continuing a journey on foot through the infield to make the mandatory stop at the care center.

He acknowledged he was aggressive protecting his position from Logano.

“I was racing for my life up to that point,” he said. “I just pushed the issue as hard as I could because I figured that was the race there. I had to push it, I couldn’t go to bed tonight and think that I gave him that lane.”

The benefactor of Edwards’ error, though, was Johnson, who had darted through the wreck ahead of Busch and Logano. Knaus pumped his fists in joy, all too aware that they were suddenly in the game.

“That’s what makes a seven-time champion — someone that fights and battles and digs and never gives up,” said four-time champion Jeff Gordon, the teammate who discovered Johnson for Hendrick Motorsports.  “They keep themselves in position and allowed some of those unfortunate instances to work in their favor. You can say luck, whatever you want to say, but those guys battled. They battled hard.”

Logano wasn’t giving up his effort, though, and headed to pit road to take on new tires for a final restart.

“This guy on a restart with five laps to go, I’ll take him every day of the week,” crew chief Todd Gordon said.

Logano restarted eighth but was a bull as he pushed his way through traffic and into third place, behind Johnson, after a caution forced another restart.

This time, Johnson got the start of his life and jumped into the lead.  He didn’t look back, only forward at his slice of NASCAR history.

“They were nowhere all day, and just kind of ran around, I don’t know, probably, I’d guess sixth,” Busch said. “Never really showed their hand at all and didn’t really show any speed, never really led in the laps until the last one, and that’s the only one that really matters.”

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