If you were fortunate enough to be in the grandstands at Homestead-Miami Speedway Sunday, or even watching Sunday’s race on TV, you were a witness to history.
Part of that history is simple enough: Jimmie Johnson came from nowhere to lead only the final three laps of the Ford EcoBoost 400 and win both the race and a record-tying seventh championship.
Johnson, one of the most underappreciated superstars of this or any sport, now joins first-ballot NASCAR Hall of Fame members Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty as the only seven-time champions at NASCAR’s highest level.
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Given that Earnhardt and Petty won all their titles over a full season and Johnson won all of his in the Chase era and under several different formats, that’s pretty amazing.
Years from now — decades from now — people will be talking about this crazy race in the same way they talk about the 1992 NAPA 500, when Alan Kulwicki beat Bill Elliott for the title by leading one more lap in the race than Elliott did and picking up 5 bonus points for most laps led. That’s how close it was.
For most of the Homestead race, the battle wasn’t for the lead, but for the lead in the championship. Remember, four drivers came into the race tied in points, with the title going to the driver who finished ahead of the other three.
Between them, Kyle Larson and Kevin Harvick led 211 of 268 laps, dominating the race.
But behind them virtually all race long was a mad scramble for second place. At various times during the race, Carl Edwards, Joey Logano and Kyle Busch all seemed like locks to finish second and win the title.
And yet none of them did.
Edwards and Logano had contact on a restart that sent Edwards’ car into the wall and damaged Logano’s. Busch didn’t have a car that performed as well as he’d hoped.
Johnson, meanwhile, seemed to spend the whole race running between sixth and 14th after starting at the back of the field.
Hell, he never led at all until the final three laps.
Yet, when it was winning time, that’s exactly what Jimmie Johnson did: win.
And that’s what Johnson does better than anyone else in this generation. He wins races and he wins championships. Eighty race victories, seven champions
More than anything, though, what struck me about this year is how many great drivers didn’t win.
Edwards, Logano and Busch came up short tonight, while three guys who won four races each this season — Harvick, Martin Truex Jr. and Brad Keselowski — didn’t even make the final round. Nor did past champion Matt Kenseth, who came up about half a lap short at Phoenix last week.
This is a brutal, heartbreaking sport, where winning is incredibly difficult.
Just ask the guys who didn’t win the championship tonight.
“The championship means so much and everyone forgets about second place,” said Logano. “That is what stinks.”
“That was very, very frustrating,” said Edwards. “I felt like that was our race and our championship, but, hey, this is how racing goes.”
Edwards has raced at NASCAR’s top level for 13 years and his still looking for his first championship. So is Logano, who is 0-for-8. Busch, regarded has one of the best drivers of his generation, has one title in 12 full seasons.
And now Johnson has seven.
“I never even saw him my mirror barely,” Busch said of Johnson. “He just came out of nowhere there at the end and did what he needed to do and was Superman and won the championship, so that’s when it matters.”
That’s what champions do.
And that’s why Johnson, crew chief Chad Knaus and the rest of the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports are the best racers of their generation. And maybe any generation.