To become a champion in NASCAR is a huge accomplishment. To win seven NASCAR championships is making history. Entering the 2016 season, only Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt had accomplished the feat, but one California driver was on the cusp of joining them in that prestigious club. In the end, that driver’s tumultuous season was capped off with my motorsport moment of 2016.
When the checkered flag flew at Homestead-Miami Speedway in 2006, Jimmie Johnson became a NASCAR Cup Series champion. When he did it again from 2007–2010, he became a multi-time champion and the first to win five in a row. When he took the checkered in 2013, he became a six-time champ. In his quest for seven titles, his hopes were dashed in the new Chase format introduced in 2014 when he finished a career-worst 11th in points. His second attempt in 2015 also fell short when he was eliminated after the first round and finished 10th.
Three years removed from his last championship, Johnson entered 2016 as the most decorated driver in NASCAR with the retirement of his teammate Jeff Gordon. He started the year on a slower note than in past years with a 16th-place finish in the Daytona 500, his worst finish in the event since 2012. Despite this, he proved to be a championship contender with a victory at Atlanta and backed it up with a Superman-esque performance at Fontana.
Even with the two wins, his season slowed down in the midseason and summer months, as pit road problems and other issues plagued the #48 team. Johnson would go 24 races without winning a race, his longest dry spell since a 21-race winless streak in 2011. Although he remained in the top-10 in points, it seemed title #7 would have to wait another year.
By the Chase, Johnson had a decent run in the Round of 16 to advance. Even with his advancement, not many expected Johnson to win it all. In the Round of 12, however, he proved he could still fight for a championship with a dominating win at Charlotte, followed by a Championship Round-clinching victory at Martinsville.
Entering the final race at Homestead, plenty of headlines circulated in the NASCAR world. Three-time series champion Tony Stewart was making his final start in NASCAR, Sprint preparing to make its exit as the series’ title sponsor and the uncertainty about who would replace the telecommunications giant’s role. At the same time, everyone focused on Johnson with one question in mind: “Will Jimmie Johnson win his seventh title?”. The objective sounded simple enough for a six-time champ to accomplish: finish ahead of the other three championship-contending drivers. However, he faced roadblocks in his hunt in the forms of Kyle Busch, who won the championship in 2015, Busch’s teammate Carl Edwards, who had come close to winning titles in 2008 and 2011, and Joey Logano, who won the previous week’s race in Phoenix. To further add to Johnson’s challenges, he qualified 14th, the worst of the four Chasers, while a penalty in post-qualifying inspection dropped him to the rear of the field.
Johnson overcame the start and began to slice his way through the field, showing why he’s one of NASCAR’s top drivers. By lap 50, he had already entered the top five. However, he was still unable to keep up with the other three Chase contenders. As the race wore on, it seemed as though Edwards, who led 47 laps (the most of the four drivers) and the points standings for much of the evening, would be the 2016 champion.
That would likely have been the case had it not been for his crash with ten laps to go. On the late restart, Edwards attempted to block Logano’s move on his inside. The two left the track and Edwards was clipped by Logano and sent into the inside retaining wall. From there, he bounced off and was collected by incoming traffic. While Logano took minor damage, Edwards’ day and championship hopes were done.
For the ensuing restart, Johnson elected to stay out while the others pitted, enabling him to restart on the front row. Although Logano, on newer tires, was able to catch up to the #48, another caution forced overtime and one more restart with three laps to go. With Edwards out and Busch too far away to mount a charge, the championship came down to Johnson and Logano. Both drivers had strong restarts as Johnson was able to pass Kyle Larson for the lead. Logano was shuffled behind Larson and Kevin Harvick down to 4th when they took the white flag. Johnson began to pull away from Logano, while Larson struggled to catch up to Johnson. Johnson crossed the finish line to claim his 80th career Cup win, his first at Homestead, and the 2016 championship.
“It’s just beyond words,” he stated in Victory Lane. “We just kept our heads in the game. Chad [Knaus] called a great strategy, made some great adjustments for the short runs. Luck came our way and we were able to win the race and win the championship.”
Reaction among the NASCAR fanbase was varied. For some, they did not appreciate Johnson tying Petty and Earnhardt due to a number of his titles coming under a Chase format. For others, they were jubilant at being able to witness history being made. For a certain number of fans on Reddit like me, this moment was bittersweet. Earlier in the year, the /r/NASCAR community lost a good friend and subreddit moderator. A huge Jimmie Johnson fan, she would have loved to see him celebrating that seventh championship.
When the Cup Series was renamed to the Sprint Cup Series in 2008, Johnson won the championship. As he bookends Sprint’s run as title sponsor with his seventh title, Johnson will begin a new hunt in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series: an eighth championship.
Featured image courtesy of Darryl Graham, Associated Press