By Jared Turner
After having only modestly successful 2014 and 2015 seasons by his lofty standards, Jimmie Johnson entered the 2016 NASCAR Sprint Cup season somewhat under the radar for a driver of his caliber and success.
Johnson, who rang up a record-breaking five consecutive championships from 2006-2010 and added another in 2013, remained under the radar at the outset of the 2016 Chase thanks to a relatively quiet regular season performance that included just two wins – both in the first month-and-a-half of the season.
But once the Chase commenced, Johnson showed his muscle with victories at Charlotte Motor Speedway and Martinsville Speedway – the latter of which made him the first driver to earn a berth in the Championship 4 race at Homestead-Miami Speedway in South Florida.
Fittingly, his performance in the winner-take-all finale was a microcosm of his season: He flew under the radar all race long and trailed his three fellow title contenders almost the entire race, moving to the front for the first time with three laps to go.
Then, despite being on older tires than many just behind him, Johnson got the restart of his life for the green-white-checkered finish and it allowed him to hold the field at bay for the final two laps.
“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. “I don’t know what I screamed on the radio, but I know it didn’t sound like my voice. I was thinking, ‘You’d better take your finger off the button. That didn’t sound like you.’ Yes, that was as dramatic and as crazy as I’ve ever experienced in my racing career.”
The win was the 80th of Johnson’s illustrious career and his first at Homestead – one of only four current Cup tracks where he’d never been to Victory Lane. More importantly, Johnson made history by tying legends Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt as the only drivers with seven championships in NASCAR’s premier series.
Petty, NASCAR’s all-time wins leader with 200 victories, was on hand to witness the occasion.
“Records are a mark and they set something for everyone to shoot at,” Petty said. “Jimmie and his team have done that tonight. 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. …
“Jimmie is a great champion and this is really good for our sport.”
Johnson’s triumph at Homestead was a microcosm of his unflashy season, and in many ways an embodiment his low-key personality that some over the years have even dubbed “vanilla.”
The lesson to be learned from Homestead and the season is simple: Don’t ever underestimate Johnson, crew chief Chad Knaus and the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team.
Throughout his stellar career, Johnson has consistently been underestimated by pundits – and even perhaps a few competitors – only to almost always rise to the occasion when it has mattered most.
“I hate to be this blunt, but … he is probably the most underrated champion in this sport, to be honest with you,” said Knaus, Johnson’s crew chief for all seven of his championships. “He is a fantastic, fantastic individual, an amazing race car driver. Most people in the situation we were just in would crumble, and he didn’t even waver. He knew what he needed to do. He knew what the demands were on him at that point in time, and he made it happen.
“You know, and that’s the difference in the whole thing from my standpoint. We’ve got a great team. We’ve got a great owner. We’ve got a great everything at Hendrick Motorsports is fantastic, but the fact of the matter is the real spark in this whole thing is Jimmie.”
Sunday at Homestead, when Johnson struggled to find enough speed in his No. 48 Chevrolet for most of the race, was vintage JJ.
“The 48, they were nowhere all day, and just kind of ran around, I don’t know, probably, I’d guess sixth, but 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,” said Championship 4 driver Kyle Busch, who finished sixth in the race and third in the championship battle.
Perhaps Johnson, never one to go overboard in outward of expressions of confidence, knew something no one else did.
“What’s wild is I never thought it was a bleak night,” he said. “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. For a while I came to grips with the reality of it being third, fourth, somewhere in there and shaking somebody else’s hand and being happy for them, and then it changed so quick at the end.”
On the Hunt for No. 8?
With a seventh championship now his, Jimmie Johnson is already considering the possibility of an eighth title – which would break his tie with Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt.
“I don’t know what the chances are, but let’s go,” Johnson said after capturing No. 7. “I’m so excited to put that in front of myself and the team has a hurdle to get over and an accomplishment to achieve. This one and the calm nature and the way we went about business and got it done only gives me more confidence for the future. I honestly feel like I’m playing with house money. I never aspired to be famous. I never aspired to be a champion. I just wanted to race.
“I’ve found a way to put it in that simple mindset here the last couple attempts, in ’13 and now in ’16. I think it makes us really dangerous, and I look forward to the challenge of trying to get number eight.”
Johnson’s boss, 12-time Cup champion team owner Rick Hendrick, likewise can’t help but think about the possibilities for Johnson and veteran crew chief Chad Knaus.
“I think winning seven and tying seven is pretty special,” Hendrick said. “I’m excited to see him, he and Chad, try to break the record now because we’re tied, and you can’t go to eight until you get seven.”