After one swift pass on a restart with two laps to go, Jimmie Johnson matched history in Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400.
Scoring his first victory at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Johnson beat championship rival Joey Logano to grab his seventh Sprint Cup Series championship. In just his 15th season, he’s now equaled Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt for the most all-time. The 80th race-winning trophy Johnson earned was icing on the cake, scooting ahead after Kyle Larson had quietly dominated ahead of the Championship 4.
“It’s big,” Johnson said. “It has a different meaning. For some reason, I just felt good and calm today and things just kind of unfolded at the end for us.”
Johnson’s demeanor proved crucial as the team spent the day coming from behind. A faulty A-Post during pre-race inspection sent the No. 48 car straight to the rear; Johnson moved up quickly, jumping into the top 10 by lap 50 but then stalled out. As the race unfolded, fellow title contenders Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch, and Joey Logano had more speed, better track position and left the No. 48 team praying for a miracle.
That moment came in the form of Edwards and Logano.
Starting from the 10th position, it was Edwards who held the top spot among the Chasers for a majority of the event. Leading 47 laps, Edwards fought back from a poor late pit stop, dropping from second to fifth during one sequence and passed teammate Busch during the final stretch. With Larson far ahead, he was poised to finish second – enough to win the championship – until a late caution for smoke from Dylan Lupton’s No. 32 car stirred the pot.
The ensuing restart came with 12 laps remaining and leader Larson chose the outside line. That left Edwards restarting inside, just in front of Logano as the cars hit the start/finish line. Logano got momentum, surging to the inside of Edwards but Edwards came down and blocked. The result was a savage accident that saw Edwards pound the inside SAFER barrier before getting slammed hard by Kasey Kahne. Martin Truex, Jr., Brad Keselowski, Regan Smith, Ty Dillon, and Ryan Newman also took hard hits with Truex’s car on fire for several seconds.
Though Edwards was understandably torn, he gave credit to his No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing team for an “outstanding” performance. Quality sportsmanship ensued, the driver running to Logano’s pit box to shake crew chief Todd Gordon’s hand before giving a number of standup interviews to the press.
“I went down there and blocked, he went down as far as a guy can be expected to go down, and I just thought we were going to possibly hit,” Edwards said. “I just thought I’d have a little more time to correct it, but we were so far down there he couldn’t go any further down basically and we ended up wrecked.
“That’s the way it goes sometimes.”
“I understand why he had to throw the block,” said Logano after the race. “And he understands why I had to make the move, because that was for the win. That was the only shot that I had. It’s 10 laps to go; what do you expect?”
The wreck did irritate several drivers bothered by the previous caution. Keselowski was among them.
Not quite as wild as the yellow for a car simply getting sideways that set it up. ? https://t.co/IfyK0vUV4f
— Brad Keselowski (@keselowski) November 20, 2016
Following the wreck, Busch restarted third and Johnson fourth while Logano pitted for fresh tires. Suddenly, the No. 48 team was perfect position to capitalize and they took advantage. Nailing the restart, Johnson moved up to second before Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. forced another caution and NASCAR Overtime.
Logano charged up to third, pushing by Busch but ultimately didn’t have enough to catch the No. 48 on one final restart. Busch, who wound up getting fresh tires of his own for that green-white-checkered finish could only run sixth as Johnson broke the barrier on title number seven.
“Just didn’t think the race was unfolding for us like we needed to do to be the champs,” he said. “But we just kept our heads in the game. Chad (Knaus, 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.”
“Crazy that they were never really in the game,” added Busch. “But there they are all of a sudden every chance they get. They get in the right time or the right lane or have a good restart or just do they things they need to do, and make the most of it.”
Another driver disappointed exiting Homestead is Kyle Larson, the non-Chaser who led 132 of 268 laps before losing the lead to Johnson on the final restart to finish second. He felt officials turned the other way late in the race in an attempt not to affect the battle for the championship.
Ran a perfect race tonight. Would have liked to see some officiating on those last few restarts… Feel another one got taken.
— Kyle Larson (@KyleLarsonRacin) November 21, 2016
Kevin Harvick, Logano and Jamie McMurray completed the top 5 followed by Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth, AJ Allmendinger and Denny Hamlin. Michael McDowell, driving the No. 59 Circle Sport Levine Family Racing Chevrolet for only the second time in 2016, came home 10th for his best career finish outside of Daytona and Talladega.
Brian Scott, who announced his retirement from the series last week, grabbed 15th in his final race while Tony Stewart was 22nd to end his legendary career. Stewart, never a factor in the race itself received congratulations from virtually every driver in the Cup garage along with car owner Joe Gibbs and former rival Jeff Gordon.
“It’s an honor,” he said of all the attention. “That’s what means the most, when you have these guys coming to you at the end of the day and saying they’re going to miss you.”