John­son seizes record-ty­ing 7th ti­tle

Ed­wards wrecks try­ing to block Logano late al­low­ing No. 48 to tie Petty, Earn­hardt

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - SPORTS - By Jenna fryer

“I had this crazy calm­ness over my­self all day long lead­ing into this. Even with us run­ning fifth and the cham­pi­onship look­ing like it’s not go­ing to be there, I just felt some­thing.” – Seven-time NASCAR Sprint Cup cham­pion Jim­mie John­son af­ter clinch­ing the ti­tle Sunday

HOMESTEAD, fLA. >> 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 last­minute trip through in­spec­tion, set­ting John­son up for a mind­bog­gling Sunday at Homestead­Mi­ami 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.

Given two more chances to win the ti­tle, John­son got the restart of his life to steal the win that earned him another en­try in NASCAR’s record books. John­son led only one lap — the last lap — and it was good enough for him to tie Richard Petty and Dale Earn­hardt as the only driv­ers in his­tory to win seven ti­tles.

“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 three­time 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.”

TERRY RENNA — THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Jim­mie John­son cel­e­brates his NASCAR Sprint Cup sea­son ti­tle win Sunday in Homestead, Fla.

DAVID GRA­HAM - THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Carl Ed­wards, top, crashes into the wall as Joey Logano (22) and Brad Ke­selowski (2) drive by dur­ing the NASCAR Sprint Cup race Sunday, in Homestead, Fla.

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