Jimmie Johnson was born the same day as me. I won’t say if it’s the same year so as to protect the innocent. He grew up in Southern California and started racing motorcycles at age four. His love for racing continued during his adolescent years, while driving in local and national race car circuits. He found a home with Hendrick Motorsports in 2002. He was in the big leagues of NASCAR and he quickly showed that he belonged. After finishing in the top five each of his first four years, he won his first championship in 2006. To prove that wasn’t a fluke he won in 2007. He followed that up with a three-peat, winning in 2008, 2009, and 2010. For five straight years he was the best driver in all of NASCAR. No driver in the history of the sport had done that. Johnson also won the title in 2013, for an amazing sixth time. The next year, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Chase began tweaking aka trying to “Jimmie-proof” the championship. They went to an elimination style format during its playoff. It worked because he was not seen or heard of past the second round. Something had to change this season.
Johnson began this season with a 16th place finish at the Daytona 500, which is the Super Bowl of NASCAR. He didn’t let that rattle him though. He went out and won the very next race at Atlanta Motor Speedway. This would be his 76th of his career, tying the late Dale Earnhardt Sr. for seventh on the all-time wins list. His next victory came in the fifth race of the season, the Auto Club 400, where Johnson passed Kevin Harvick in an overtime finish. His next few races would be decent top ten finishes. At Bristol, Johnson finished a disappointing 23rd after making an unscheduled pit stop due to a loose lug nut on lap 300. At Talladega, Johnson was spun out by Paul Menard and got involved in a multi-car accident with 28 laps to go, finishing 22nd. There is a saying; when it rains, it pours. For Johnson, he had a thunderstorm hovering over him. Over the next few months he crashed out at Dover, Pocono, Daytona, Kentucky and at Watkins Glen, where he finished last for the first time in his career. He did manage a handle full of top 10 finishes during those months, which allowed him to finish in eighth place to start the playoffs.
The top 16 drivers began the playoffs in Chicago where Johnson led most of the race. However, he got a speeding penalty during a green flag pit stop late in the race, and finished in 12th. Two races later, he did the same thing at Dover. He finished with enough points to advance to the next round of 12 drivers. At Charlotte, Johnson led a race-high 155 laps and won the Bank of America 500. It’s safe to say he loves that track since it was his eighth win there. This would prove to be his first time advancing to the next round of eight drives, thus getting the proverbial monkey off his back. In the first race of the round of eight at Martinsville, Johnson made contact with Denny Hamlin on lap 198 but was able to stay on the lead lap. Later during a caution, he lost fuel pressure but was able to get the car adjusted and stayed in the lead. After that restart, he took the lead from Hamlin and led the final 92 laps to victory. This meant he could relax the next two races and get ready for the Championship race at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
The four drivers of Kyle Busch, Joey Logano, Carl Edwards, and Johnson were ready to go. Well, maybe the other three were ready. Johnson loss his starting spot due to a pre-race inspection fault which sent him to the very back of the pack. He drove hard and worked his way into the top five in less than 50 laps. On a late race restart, Edwards came across the nose of Logano, hitting the inside wall which caused a huge wreck. Johnson was able to avoid the accident which gave him a great chance to win the title. On the last restart with three laps to go, he took his first lead of the race and drove on to win his seventh championship. He had now tied two iconic figures in NASCAR, Richard Petty and Earnhardt Sr., for the most all-time championships.
Four time champion Jeff Gordon said, “I’m just in disbelief the way this race unfolded. Jimmie wanted that thing. He wanted that seventh championship and he got that seventh championship done. He deserves it. Just an amazing experience.”
Dale Earnhardt Jr. said, “It is incredible what Jimmie’s been able to do in this sport in such a short period of time. That’s seven championships in 11 years. I think he’s one of the best drivers the sport has ever seen, maybe the best. He’s been in that conversation for many years and this really closes the book on any doubts that anybody had where he ranks. He’s in that discussion with my father and Richard (Petty) and I’m glad I was a witness to it. I told Jimmie, I wish Dad were here to shake his hand. He would certainly love the type of driver he is, I know that for sure.”
When Johnson was asked to describe what it meant he said, “It’s just beyond words. We just kept our heads in the game. Chad (Knaus his crew chief) 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. I wouldn’t be here without so many people believing in me and giving me this chance. Just thank you. From the bottom of my heart, thank you. So grateful for the opportunity, and so thankful and blessed. I am at a loss for words.”
Between 2002 and 2016, Johnson has recorded seven championships, 80 career race wins, 219 top five, 330 top ten, and 35 pole positions. In social media, the use of hashtags is everything. Before the race began, the use of #Se7en was trending in the hopes of Johnson winning that seventh title. After the race it continued making it a very special time for him and everyone involved. I just can’t wait to see the historical #8ight.