Jimmie Johnson was already a NASCAR legend in the making. Now his spot as one of the sport’s greatest drivers has been assured.
There will be no more questions for Johnson about when – or if – he will ever tie the record shared by Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt of seven Cup championships. He accomplished that Sunday, winning the Ford EcoBoost 400 in the season-finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
By winning the race ahead of runner-up Kyle Larson in overtime, Johnson also did what he needed to do to win the title – finishing ahead of the three other championship-round drivers he was competing with for the title – Joey Logano (fourth), Kyle Busch (sixth) and Carl Edwards (34th).
After winning five consecutive titles from 2006-10 and another in 2013, Johnson’s nickname can now be updated to “Seven-time.”
And now, it’s on to No. 8.
“I don’t know what the chances are, but let’s go,” said Johnson, who was penalized in prerace inspection and had to start from the rear of the field. “I’m so excited to put that in front of myself. The team has (another) hurdle to get over and an accomplishment to achieve. I’m so thrilled to be in this moment, so grateful for the opportunity and so thankful and blessed. I am at a loss for words.”
Earnhardt, who died in 2001 in a wreck at Daytona International Speedway, won his seventh title in 1994. Petty, whose record of 200 career victories will likely never be broken (Johnson has 80) won his seventh in 1979.
“Records are a mark and they set something for everyone to shoot at,” Petty said in a statement after the race. “Jimmie and his team have done that (Sunday). They set a goal to get where they are and circumstances and fate made it a reality. They did what they needed to do and now they are at seven championships. Congratulations to him and his team. Jimmie is a great champion and this is really good for our sport.”
Crew chief Chad Knaus has been with Johnson and his No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevy for all seven of the titles. Knaus needs one more championship to draw even with NASCAR’s crew-chief mark set by hall-of-famer Dale Inman, who won seven with Petty and one with Terry Labonte.
“I just think about our next event, the next qualifying, the next race, whatever it may be,” said Knaus. “For me, that’s the safest environment for me to be in – knowing there’s that next goal to be accomplished. Not that I don’t want to battle for championships, but looking at numbers is not what I’m about.”
Johnson won the race and title despite a rough start to the weekend (he struggled in qualifying) and day. After his car was found to have an unapproved body modification, he had to start the race from the rear of the field.
“We work,” said Knaus of overcoming that deficit. “Everybody is out there trying to do everything they can to get every ounce of speed out of their race cars and we are, too.”
Johnson quickly worked his way to the front of the field. But he then settled into a spot behind the leaders, worrying that he didn’t have anything better than a fifth-place car.
During one pit stop, a frustrated Knaus said – in a very colorful way – he was going to try some new things to find some more speed.
That worked, but Johnson was fortunate to work his way through a wreck on Lap 258 that involved Edwards and Logano, one that likely changed the entire tone of the championship. The wreck took Edwards, who was running second behind Larson at the time, out of the race. Although Logano suffered damage to his car, he was able to stay in the race.
Another caution came out on Lap 264 when Ricky Stenhouse Jr. spun. Johnson emerged on the restart in second place.
That set up a green-white-checkered finish, and after starting inside Larson – who had already led a race-high 132 laps by working the track’s outside groove to near perfection – Johnson took the lead.
“When I got through (turns) 1 and 2 and I heard (spotter Earl Barban say) ‘clear,’ I thought, really?” Johnson said. “I couldn’t believe I was by him.”
At that point, the race – and the title – was in Johnson’s hands.
“I had this crazy, weird calmness through the last couple of weeks and then even through the race amongst all the chaos we dealt with,” said Johnson. “We ran behind those guys all night long. But there was just some calmness that, I’m like, ‘Oh, OK, we’ve got a shot at this thing.’
“I don’t know why I’ve been so calm, but maybe it’s in the cards.”