NASCAR’s Mount Rushmore is three-fourths complete: Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt, say hello to Jimmie Johnson.
Johnson joined the two biggest names in NASCAR history as seven-time Cup season champions on a night where the fortuitous heavens parted, beckoning Johnson to join the cool-kids club.
Out of the four drivers who qualified to run for the Cup title, Johnson was officially Mr. Slowpoke for much of Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway. His No. 48 Lowe’s Chevy was chugging along from the very first lap when the team was pushed to the back of the pack because of an unapproved car modification.
Johnson led just two laps, which happened to be the last two of the Ford EcoBoost 400. From last to first. If you’re going to make history, let’s go for as much drama as possible.
“My heart is so full,” Johnson said. “I had this crazy calmness over myself all day long leading in to this. Even with us running fifth and the championship not looking like it was going to be there, I just felt something.”
Cosmic California Cool, perhaps. It had been a while for Johnson, stuck on six-time champ since 2013. This was his first title under the Chase Championship 4 elimination format that began in 2014.
Johnson easily won a two-lap shootout after a caution came out when Ricky Stenhouse Jr. lost control. Kyle Larson was second and Kevin Harvick third. Joey Logano was the closest Chase finalist to Johnson, finishing fourth.
The race-defining moment came with 10 laps to go when Carl Edwards tried to block Logano on a restart, then got loose before his car went flying into the wall.
The incident knocked Edwards — who was in best position to win the title — out of the race, and left Logano’s Ford with right-front damage and pushed back to eighth on the restart.
“I understand why he had to throw the block, and he understands why I had to make the move, because that was for the win,” Logano said. “That was the only shot that I had. That was for the race win. … I knew that was my play.”
Edwards walked out of his car and went over to Logano’s pit crew and shook hands with crew members. Edwards owned the mistake, refusing to lay full blame on Logano.
“I think it was shared, you know what I mean?” Edwards said. “I think it was just racing. I haven’t seen a real close-up view, but the way I had it figured is first of all that was the race of my life up to that point.”
The race was red-flagged, stopped immediately regardless of the cars’ position on the track. The mashup caused a delay of 31 minutes and came after a caution that came out with 15 laps to go when Dylan Luton’s car cut a tire.
Window of opportunity. Advantage, Johnson.
“I felt like something was going to happen,” he said, “and I was going to be OK with it.”
Only 41, Johnson has plenty of mileage left to compete for another, which will play to mixed results with a portion of the NASCAR Nation that remains smitten by the sport’s Southern roots.
Johnson, from California, may not fit the old-school stereotype, but put him behind the wheel of a stock car and the competitive dynamics is as good as it gets.
“He is probably the most underrated champion in this sport,” said Chad Knaus, his crew chief. “Most people in this situation would crumble. He didn’t even waver.”
Rivals and friends came by Victory Lane to pay homage to Johnson, including his former Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon and current teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr.
“Just proud of Jimmie,” Earnhardt said. “I don’t know we’d see anybody else win seven.”
Amen, Petty said in a statement.
“Records are a mark and they set something for everyone to shoot at. 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. Congratulations to him and his team.”
Memo to everybody: He’s not done yet.
Read George Diaz’s blog at OrlandoSentinel.com/enfuego