HOMESTEAD, Fla. — Jimmie Johnson is now on the same page in the history books as Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt. He has his seventh championship, winning it in easily more dramatic fashion than any of his previous six.
Johnson started at the back of the field of Sunday’s winner-take-all season finale, caught up quickly but seemingly lacked enough speed to beat the other three championship contenders. A seventh title would have to wait, it seemed.
And then all hell broke lose.
Lining up for restart with 10 laps to go, the four drivers in the hunt for the championship ran second (Carl Edwards), third (Joey Logano), fifth (Johnson) and sixth (Kyle Busch). Whoever of these four finished in front would win the 2016 Sprint Cup title. On the restart, Logano dipped low to pass Edwards, Edwards went for the block, but it was too late. Logano was already there, his bumper sending Edwards hard into the inside wall, his championship hopes smashed in an instant.
“He came down in front of me,” Logano said over his radio.
For Edwards it was another crushing blow at Homestead, where five years ago he finished in a tie with Tony Stewart only to lose the championship on a tiebreaker. Edwards, though, took it like a man. As the field sat frozen on the track under a red flag, Edwards walked to Logano’s pit box to let them know there were no hard feelings.
“I pushed the issue as far as I could because I figured that was the race there,” Edwards said, explaining his reasoning behind moving down to block Logano. “I couldn’t go to bed tonight knowing I gave him that lane.”
There was still a race to finish and a championship to be won.
Another caution flag flew with four laps to go, setting up a final two-lap sprint for the title.
When they restarted with two laps to go, Johnson was the biggest beneficiary of the cautions. He had nothing for Edwards, Logano or Busch prior to the wreck. Now, though, he would restart second, in front of Logano (third) and Busch (13th after opting to pit).
It would be a replay of the restart just a few laps earlier, only with Johnson in front of Logano. And only this time, Logano would not get to the lead car’s bumper.
Johnson, who had never won before at Homestead-Miami, drove away from Logano, then set his sites on the lead, passing Kyle Larson. It would be a walk-off for Johnson, winning the race and, thus, the title.
“I get clear off of Turn 2, and it just all like – I got the goosebumps down backstretch,” Johnson said. “I’m like, you’ve got to be kidding me. I looked in the mirror and the 22 is fading.
“… What’s wild is I never thought it was a bleak night,” he continued. “There was this weird, comfortable confidence I had all night long. Maybe weird is the wrong word to use, but I was just – I felt like something was going to happen, and I was going to be okay with it.”
Coming into Sunday, four drivers had a chance at the championship: Johnson, Busch, Edwards and Logano. Thanks to NASCAR’s relatively new championship elimination format, each driver simply had to outrun the others to win the 2016 Sprint Cup championship.
Johnson provided the race’s most tangible storyline heading into the race: With six championships already, Johnson stood to match NASCAR legends Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt with seven. Busch, meanwhile, was the defending Cup champion, and looked to back up his reputation as one of the best pure drivers in the sport. Logano, despite suffering under the worst nickname in sports (“Sliced Bread”), had the opportunity to represent the newest generation of drivers atop the NASCAR pyramid. Edwards was trying to balance the scales after coming out on the low end of the closest championship finish in NASCAR history, that loss to Stewart that happened five years ago to the day.
The Chase’s current winner-take-all, four-racing-for-the-Cup format is in its third year, and this marks the first year all four drivers have more than one race victory. The format allows for the possibility that a driver could get lucky at exactly the right time and sneak into the finale with only a single win. Not this year, though; Johnson and Busch came into Homestead with four wins, while Logano and Edwards had three. Mathematically, each driver had a 25 percent chance to win the Cup, and the realistic odds for each driver weren’t far off that.
Championship drama edged its way into the race even before the green flag. The four Chasers were slated to start in positions ranging from ninth to 14th, but Jimmie Johnson’s 48 had to drop to the rear of the field because of some unapproved modifications.
The green flag dropped at 3:23 p.m. ET, shortly after an extended tribute to the retiring Stewart. Within two laps, Johnson had made up 13 spots, and by Lap 19, he was in 13th, roughly where he would have started without the penalty. A dozen laps later, he was in fifth place.
Save for when Busch pitted for what he thought was a flat tire, the four championship contenders jostled for position inside the top 10 for virtually the entire race. The rest of the field raced the Chasers in the same way NBA players play defense in the All-Star Game … which is to say, in name only.
The flat tire that turned out not to be a flat tire pushed Busch down a lap, but he made it up quickly, then reinserted himself inside the top 10 and back into title contention. He trailed Larson for most of the closing laps, which was all he needed. That is, until Edwards caught and eventually passed him.
Edwards was in control, running second, the title his if the race had stayed green. But it didn’t, a caution coming out with 14 laps to go. That’s what put him in position to have to block Logano, and what brought Johnson back into contention.
“When Carl and I got into each other there, that just pretty much parted the seas for the 48 [Johnson] to run through there and gain a couple spots and put himself in position to win,” Logano said. “You know, he was in the right place at the right time, and that’s good for him.”
Now that Johnson has caught Petty and Earnhardt, the comparisons will be made: Who’s the greatest?
Petty has 200 wins to go along with his seven titles, while Earnhardt (76 wins) can lay claim to being the most dominant driver of the so-called “modern era,” when NASCAR streamlined its schedule to pit the best vs. the best every single weekend.
Johnson, at 41, is younger than Petty (42) or Earnhardt (43) were when they won seven, his 80 wins and counting ranks him seventh all-time and, assuming he races another three to four years, he will have a chance for an eighth title and potentially catch David Pearson, who’s second on the all-time wins list with 105.
Let the debate begin.
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports and the author of EARNHARDT NATION, on sale now at Amazon or wherever books are sold. Contact him at email@example.com or find him on Twitter or on Facebook.