HOMESTEAD, Fla. (AP) — Jimmie Johnson had the commemorative helmet and a photographer chronicling his every move. He had even planned to run a symbolic seven miles the night before his shot at a seventh championship.
He’s adamant he didn’t know something special was coming.
Johnson was the worst 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 clearly not in the same league as the other finalists Sunday night.
Johnson didn’t panic, keeping the same calmness he’s had for 10 weeks of this historic march. So relaxed before this event, he canceled his “short run” and instead spent the night eating pasta.
And as he chased Carl Edwards, reigning champion Kyle Busch and Joey Logano, it sure seemed like there was not shot at No. 7.
“I’m sure the world felt like anybody but Jimmie Johnson was going to win the championship with 20 to go, and then it changed so quick,” Johnson said.
Johnson was practically gifted his seventh title when Edwards’ aggressive attempt to win the championship ended in a wreck.
Most of the race was spent talking about backflips, repeats or a Penske sweep because Johnson just wasn’t as good as Edwards, Busch or 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.
“When I was coming to the checkered flag, I had to really look closely at it going by to make sure it was, ‘Like is this really happening?’” Johnson said.
Johnson’s No. 48 Chevrolet was pulled off pit road by NASCAR shortly before the race and forced to make a last-minute pass 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 seemingly had no shot until Edwards coughed up the title.
“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 also was 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 Fame 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.
“I was racing for my life up to that point,” Edwards 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 was Johnson, who 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.”
(© Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)