Saturday, November 25, 2017

Fennelly: NASCAR's Jimmie Johnson goes from last to legend


HOMESTEAD — It took one heck and wreck of a Hail Mary to do it.

But there he stands.

Hail Jimmie.

Jimmie Johnson. Richard Petty. Dale Earnhardt.

They're running three wide in history.

And Jimmie Johnson absolutely belongs.

"It's incredible," he said. "I can't lie."

Sunday night he earned his record-tying seventh NASCAR championship every bit as much as Petty and Earnhardt earned theirs. In fact, Johnson's seven are more impressive, coming as they have in a true age of NASCAR parity.

That Johnson came out of nowhere — nowhere — at Homestead-Miami Speedway to win the Sprint Cup season's final race in NASCAR overtime, and with it the Chase for the Championship, made it even more remarkable.

Johnson, 41, started at the back of the Ford EcoBoost 400 field, well behind his Championship 4 competitors, Joey Logano, Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards. At times it looked like Edwards' night. At times it looked like Busch's night. At times it looked like Logano's night. It hardly ever looked like Johnson's night.

And then it belonged to him, and will forever.

He led three laps all race, but the last two were enough.

His No. 48 car qualified to start 14th, but NASCAR decided Johnson's crew made "unapproved adjustments" after Sunday's prerace inspection. The 48 was pulled from the grid, then placed in back. Sometimes I wonder if Johnson's crew chief, Chad Knaus, has ever met Bill Belichick.

Anyway, Johnson started last. He worked his way up quickly but basically stalled at around fifth place. He didn't have the best car. Until it mattered.

And now he is part of history.

With the alleged retirement of Jeff Gordon last season, and now salutes to the great fireball Tony Stewart — who drove his final Sprint Cup race Sunday — everywhere, only one active racer has won more than one championship.

Hail Jimmie.

Nobody else has more than one. Think about that.

Do you know what any driver would do to win one championship?

We saw what Edwards and Logano would do. The two racers in the Championship 4 who had never won a title knew what was on the line and raced that way on a restart with 10 laps to go.

Logano got the jump on Edwards, who was running second. Edwards moved down low to block. Logano tapped Edwards' left rear. Edwards hit an inside wall, then an outside wall. Wrecked. Done.

"I couldn't have slept (Sunday night) if I'd given him that lane," Edwards said.

That's how much they wanted one, just one.

Jimmie Johnson has seven.

Think about that.

That caution was his opening. He climbed into the race. He led Busch and Logano on the restart, then grabbed the race lead on another restart after another caution.

Jimmie Johnson closed the deal.

He has done that his entire career.

"If anybody deserves it, it's him," said Dale Earnhardt Jr., who was with Johnson in Victory Lane, as were Gordon, Stewart and seemingly all of mankind. "If my dad were here, he'd happily welcome him."

Listen to Junior, everybody, because he's not wrong.

"Jimmie is a great champion. This is really good for our sport," King Richard Petty said.

Hey, you heard the King.

"It means the world to me to tie Earnhardt and Petty," Johnson said. "These guys are legends of our sport, grew our sport, made it what it is today, for guys like myself to come along and be able to compete. I'm so thankful for their legacies, their families, their dedication to the sport. … And I just hope I can carry the torch, carry the banner, the way they have."

History is in good hands.

And that's no lie.


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