Per­se­ver­ance car­ries John­son to sev­enth ti­tle

Daily Freeman (Kingston, NY) - - SPORTS - By Jenna Fryer

In a dra­matic start to his race for a record-ty­ing NASCAR sev­enth cham­pi­onship, Jim­mie John­son learned NASCAR’s in­spec­tors had yanked his Chevro­let off the pre-race grid and sent it back through tech.

Jim­mie John­son walked across the stage af­ter driver in­tro­duc­tions to find his car in­ex­pli­ca­bly miss­ing from pit road.

In a dra­matic start to his race for a record-ty­ing sev­enth cham­pi­onship, John­son learned NASCAR’s in­spec­tors had yanked his Chevro­let off the pre­race grid and sent it back through tech. The Hen­drick Mo­tor­sports team had been ac­cused of ma­nip­u­lat­ing a body panel, and John­son had to start last in the field.

In less than 30 laps, he was sniff­ing the top-10.

“He come from last do­ing that?” Joey Logano asked him team, “Wow.” The best was yet to come. For most of the day, 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 with a record seven ti­tles, but he was clearly not in the same league as the other fi­nal­ists Sun­day night.

John­son, who seemed to have sensed the last 10 weeks that he was fi­nally go­ing to grab that spe­cial sev­enth ti­tle, never pan­icked.

“I felt like some­thing was go­ing to hap­pen, and I was go­ing to be OK with it,” John­son said. “For a while I came to grips with the re­al­ity of (fin­ish­ing) third, fourth, some­where in there and shak­ing some­body else’s hand and be­ing happy for them.

“Then it changed so quick at the end.”

John­son was prac­ti­cally gifted his sev­enth ti­tle when Carl Ed­wards’ ag­gres­sive at­tempt to win the cham­pi­onship ended in a wreck. John­son got the restart of his life in over­time, took the lead on the very last lap of the race, won for the first time in his ca­reer at Homestead and grabbed the final Sprint Cup tro­phy.

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 re­ceived kind words from Petty, while Hen­drick Mo­tor­sports team­mate Dale Earn­hardt Jr. 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 seemed headed for the ti­tle un­til a cau­tion with 10 laps re­main­ing set up a wild se­quence. 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.

“They were nowhere all day, and just kind of ran around, I don’t know, prob­a­bly, I’d guess sixth,” said 2015 cham­pion Kyle Busch. “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.”

Per­haps it’s be­cause John­son had no plan. This was one of those rare days in racing when some­one else’s bad breaks ben­e­fited a driver who was pre­pared to pounce. Ed­wards’ ac­ci­dent gave him a chance John­son didn’t have a mere five laps ear­lier.

“It wasn’t look­ing good,” Knaus ad­mit­ted. “I still don’t think that we nec­es­sar­ily had the speed that we need. The one thing that we have in our cor­ner is we have Jim­mie John­son. He is the one that makes things hap­pen when we don’t nec­es­sar­ily have the race cars.

“When we do have the race cars that we need, he does phe­nom­e­nal things.”

Also doubt­ing the sit­u­a­tion was team owner Rick Hen­drick, stand­ing atop the pit box and lament­ing with 10 laps to go that it was over for John­son.

His wife told him John­son was still go­ing to win the race. Hen­drick didn’t take her se­ri­ously.

“When we had that last cau­tion and he came out and took the lead, I couldn’t be­lieve it,” Hen­drick said. “I was ac­tu­ally stunned be­cause we had so many ups and downs in that race.”

In­deed, from last to first and the top of the record books.

DAR­RYL GRA­HAM — THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

Jim­mie John­son hold his flag as he does the vic­tory lap af­ter win­ing the NASCAR Sprint Cup auto race and sea­son ti­tle Sun­day in Homestead, Fla.

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