HOMESTEAD, Fla. (AP) — Jimmie Johnson walked across the stage after driver introductions to find his car inexplicably missing from pit road.
In a dramatic start to his race for a record-tying seventh championship, Johnson learned NASCAR’s inspectors had yanked his Chevrolet off the pre-race grid and sent it back through tech. The Hendrick Motorsports team had been accused of manipulating a body panel, and Johnson had to start last in the field.
In less than 30 laps, he was sniffing the top-10.
“He come from last doing that?” Joey Logano asked him team, “Wow.”
The best was yet to come.
For most of the day, Johnson was the worst of the championship contenders in a winner-take-all season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. He needed only to beat three other drivers to tie Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt with a record seven titles, but he was clearly not in the same league as the other finalists Sunday night.
Johnson, who seemed to have sensed the last 10 weeks that he was finally going to grab that special seventh title, never panicked.
“I felt like something was going to happen, and I was going to be OK with it,” Johnson said. “For a while I came to grips with the reality of (finishing) third, fourth, somewhere in there and shaking somebody else’s hand and being happy for them.
“Then it changed so quick at the end.”
Johnson was practically gifted his seventh title when Carl Edwards’ aggressive attempt to win the championship ended in a wreck. Johnson got the restart of his life in overtime, took the lead on the very last lap of the race, won for the first time in his career at Homestead and grabbed the final Sprint Cup trophy.
The win was the 15th for Hendrick Motorsports and seventh for crew chief Chad Knaus, who now only trails Dale Inman’s record eight.
“When I was coming to the checkered flag, I had to really look closely at it going by to make sure it was, like, ‘Is this really happening?’” Johnson said.
Johnson received kind words from Petty, while Hendrick Motorsports teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. represented his late father in victory lane.
“I told Jimmie I wish Dad was here to shake his hand,” Earnhardt said. “Dad would think he’s such a bad-ass. He’s such a great race car driver. How he won this thing tonight, I don’t think a lot of people know, he can will himself to get (his all) out of a car when it matters. There’s a lot of circumstance that played into it, but he put himself in that position.”
Edwards seemed headed for the title until a caution with 10 laps remaining set up a wild sequence. Edwards tried to block Logano on the restart, wound up wrecked, and it was Johnson who drove through the carnage to take the championship lead.
Johnson withstood two more restarts and dedicated the final two attempts at the win to the late Ricky Hendrick, who was one of 10 friends and family members killed in a 2004 plane crash.
“They were nowhere all day, and just kind of ran around, I don’t know, probably, I’d guess sixth,” said 2015 champion Kyle Busch. “Never really showed their hand at all and didn’t really show any speed, never really led in the laps until the last one, and that’s the only one that really matters.”
Perhaps it’s because Johnson had no plan. This was one of those rare days in racing when someone else’s bad breaks benefited a driver who was prepared to pounce. Edwards’ accident gave him a chance Johnson didn’t have a mere five laps earlier.
“It wasn’t looking good,” Knaus admitted. “I still don’t think that we necessarily had the speed that we need. The one thing that we have in our corner is we have Jimmie Johnson. He is the one that makes things happen when we don’t necessarily have the race cars.
“When we do have the race cars that we need, he does phenomenal things.”
Also doubting the situation was team owner Rick Hendrick, standing atop the pit box and lamenting with 10 laps to go that it was over for Johnson. His wife told him Johnson was still going to win the race. Hendrick didn’t take her seriously.
“When we had that last caution and he came out and took the lead, I couldn’t believe it,” Hendrick said. “I was actually stunned because we had so many ups and downs in that race.”
Indeed, from last to first and the top of the record books.