For Hendrick Motorsports, Sunday’s Goody’s Fast Relief 500 couldn’t have been much more poetic.
After 500 grueling laps, Jeff Gordon climbed out from the cockpit of the No. 88 Chevrolet, celebrating a season-best sixth-place result while coming to terms with what appears to have been his final NASCAR Sprint Cup Series start. As Gordon caught his breath, Jimmie Johnson — Gordon’s protegé — emerged from his No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet after tying the veteran’s mark of nine wins at Martinsville Speedway and clinching his berth into the Championship 4.
On a track and race weekend that cost Rick Hendrick’s team more than any other in 2004, and in the final race of his longtime mentor and friend, Johnson surged when it counted to earn a pivotal win and in doing so he became a championship favorite.
Now, it’s finally time to admit it. We may be on the precipice of witnessing history – a third seven-time champion.
When Richard Petty first reached the mark in 1979, many assumed it would never be beaten. When Dale Earnhardt surged to tie the mark just 15 years later in 1994, the feat was deemed unlikely to be match again and improbable for any but the best drivers in the sport. When the Chase began in 2004, the concept of a seven-time champion seemed nearly impossible.
Then came Johnson.
No one would have ever thought that another driver could top Gordon’s legendary resume when he was dominating the NSCS (then Winston Cup) field through the late 90s and early 2000s, but less than 20 years later Johnson, whose Gordon recruited, finds himself gunning for the top drivers in the sport, having already surpassed his mentor by most metrics.
Since entering NASCAR’s premier series in 2003, Johnson’s been arguably the top driver in the sport. The Californian has tallied 79 points-paying victories, four All-Star Races and six championships in 14 seasons.
However, one thing Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus hadn’t been able to do, at least until this point, was figure out the modern Chase.
After earning his sixth title in 2013, Johnson bowed out of the Chase in the second round of the new playoff format in 2014. 2015 proved even worse, with the veteran bowing out in the first round amid a mechanical issue in the final race of the round at Dover International Speedway.
Johnson has a strong history at many of the tracks in the Chase, but the majority of his success was found at the three tracks that make up the Round of 8. Johnson even tallied victories in the middle race of the round at Texas Motor Speedway in both 2014 and 2015, but he hadn’t been able to keep his playoff hopes alive long enough to take advantage of his late-season success.
However, that all changed this season, courtesy of a win at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
By avoiding issues in the Round of 16 and earning a win in the opening race of the Round of 12, Johnson clinched his birth into the Chase’s penultimate round. In doing so, it was assumed that he’d effectively clinched his spot in the Championship 4, a formality that he confirmed one week later at Martinsville.
Now the veteran has confirmed himself as one of the four drivers that’ll contend for a title in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, and with three weeks to prepare, he has to be considered the favorite, though he’s hesitant to say so himself.
“It is three weeks away, but I feel like at least now, an hour into it, it’s a lot different than if I was sitting here with the old format,” Johnson said after the race. “We’re going to have four drivers with the same points value starting that race. It’s going to be different.
“There’s nothing to protect. We’re all in a tie. It’s just go out there and lay down your best work. I think that would be helpful from a stress management standpoint, thinking what could possibly happen. Love to do it. Honestly, just thrilled to have a shot at it. That’s all you can hope for, is just have a shot at it.”
The competition won’t make it easy on Johnson. The Round of 8 consists entirely of drivers that have won this season for the first time in the modern Chase’s history. Five of the top eight are previous champions in the series, two of the other three drivers have been to the Championship 4 before, and the other — Carl Edwards — lost the title only on a tiebreaker to Tony Stewart in 2011.
Johnson will also likely have to accomplish a feat he’s never managed before to take a title – win at Homestead. The veteran’s lack of a victory in the season finale can partially be contributed to his merely having to survive the race for each of his six titles, but there are still seven legitimate losses. Johnson does have a pair of runner-up performances at the track, but as Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch have proven in the last two seasons, a runner-up result likely won’t be good enough.
“There have been a few bad memories down there, but I’ve got six really good ones,” Johnson noted. “I’m going to go with those, hopefully play that card.”
Regardless of prior history at Homestead, for the first time since earning his sixth title, Johnson will go to the track with a chance at his seventh championship. Given his previous history of clutch Chase performances, fans might want to start preparing themselves to include his name alongside the likes Petty and Earnhardt as the greatest champions of all-time.