HOMESTEAD, Fla. (AP) — There was something special about NASCAR’s playoffs this season that it made it feel like Jimmie Johnson would finally win his record-tying seventh championship.
Then it was time to race, and suddenly Johnson was anything but a slam-dunk.
His car was seized by NASCAR shortly before the race for a last-minute trip through inspection, setting Johnson up for a mind-boggling Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway. He was the worst of the four title contenders for most of the race, but was gifted the chance of his career when Carl Edwards coughed away the 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.”
Petty welcomed Johnson to the 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.”
Johnson had to beat only Edwards, Joey Logano and defending champion Kyle Busch to win the title. He did it with his first career victory at Homestead.
“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.”
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 had to withstand 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 had driven the entire 10-race Chase with a tribute helmet to Earnhardt and Petty, the 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.”
Edwards felt it was important to assure Logano’s team it was just a racing incident, but he made it clear he was rooting for teammate Busch to win.
The benefactor of Edwards’ error, though, was Johnson, who had darted through the wreck ahead of Busch and Logano. Crew chief Chad Knaus pumped his fists in joy, all too aware that a dog of a night had just turned into the race of their lives.
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 the history book.
“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.”