Johnson reaches 7th heaven


Associated Press

HOMESTEAD, Fla.

Jimmie Johnson had the commemorative helmet and a photographer chronicling his every move. He even ran a symbolic seven miles the night before his shot at a seventh championship.

He must have known something special was coming.

Johnson was the dog 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 as drivers with seven titles, but he was the worst of the final four for all but one lap Sunday night.

Johnson was practically gifted his seventh title when Carl Edwards’ aggressive attempt to win the championship ended in a wreck that opened the door for Johnson.

He 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 that elusive seventh title.

“I had this crazy calmness over myself all day long leading into this,” Johnson said. “Even with us running fifth and the championship looking like it’s not going to be there, I just felt something.”

Most of the race was spent talking about backflips, repeats or a Penske sweep because Johnson just wasn’t as good as contenders Edwards, reigning series champion Kyle Busch or Joey Logano.

Then all that conversation took a back seat to a record-setting — albeit improbable — championship run. The win was the 15th for Hendrick Motorsports and seventh for crew chief Chad Knaus, who now only trails Dale Inman’s record eight.

Johnson’s No. 48 Chevrolet was seized by NASCAR shortly before the race for a last-minute trip through inspection, setting Johnson up for a mind-boggling race in which he never seemed to be a legitimate contender. He had to start last because of the inspection issue and was the worst of the final four, and had no shot until Edwards coughed away the title.

Petty welcomed Johnson to the VIP section of NASCAR’s most exclusive club.

“They set a goal to get where they are and circumstances and fate made it a reality,” Petty said. “Jimmie is a great champion and this is really good for our sport.”

He was also feted by Hendrick Motorsports teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr., who 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 was in position to win until a caution with 10 laps remaining set up a wild sequence that ruined his title hopes. 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.

“My heart was full because I was thinking of some loved ones like Ricky Hendrick and his influence,” he said.

“Something happened from above.”

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