Jimmie Johnson entered 2016 chasing NASCAR immortality. A six-time Cup champion, Johnson had spent the previous two seasons attempting to tie Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt at seven, the series record.
After winning twice in the first five races (Atlanta and Fontana), Johnson looked to be among the title favorites, but the rest of the spring and early summer cast some doubt. Johnson had top-five runs at Texas, Richmond and Charlotte but finished 22nd or worse five times following his California win through the summer race at Daytona. Johnson and the No. 48 team looked like they had fallen a step behind Joe Gibbs Racing. Even then, though, there was the question of whether Johnson, locked into the Chase with his pair of wins, was behind or whether Chad Knaus and the crew were merely toying with the competition and testing things for the Chase.
The second half of the summer wasn’t much better, and rumblings began: was Hendrick Motorsports finally knocked off the top of the mountain? Johnson was slumping, Chase Elliott hadn’t won yet in his rookie season, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. was out for the season with an injury and Kasey Kahne was working on a completely forgettable season. Johnson scored a handful of top-15 runs as the summer drew to a close but still had a handful of uncharacteristically terrible finishes to counter them. He entered the Chase with two wins and there were questions of whether he’d make it deeper than the first round, maybe the second if he got lucky.
Johnson didn’t get particularly lucky in the first round, but he got marginally better than he’d been in the summer, and finishes of 12th, eighth and seventh were enough to make the first cut. Still, there were lingering doubts. Johnson hadn’t won since March and hadn’t been particularly competitive, even at Dover, where he holds the all-time wins record. But he won at Charlotte, punching his ticket into the third round, the deepest he’d ever gone in the current Chase format. Another top 5 at Kansas (fourth) and Johnson forced his way into the title conversation. He was 23rd at Talladega, a race on which nobody wants to have to pin any title hopes.
Johnson and Co. must have enjoyed the feeling of knowing they’d be moving on right away, because they won the opener of the round of eight at Martinsville. Martinsville is a track where Johnson has been dominant in the past, and he again reminded fans why they should never count him out of a title hunt. It turned out to be a good thing he won, because after finishing a so-so 11th at Texas, Johnson had a terrible run at Phoenix…but his die was cast for Homestead.
Johnson was fast out of the box in the finale, posting fast speeds in practice, but qualified just 14th and didn’t look like he had anything for his rivals. He closed in as the laps wound down, but it looked like a seventh title would have to wait another year.
Bit if there is one thing to know about Jimmie Johnson is that if a win is within reach, he’s got the tenacity of a bulldog, and when a late crash forced a restart, Johnson was close enough to the front to see the leaders…and to see them run out of racing room. The ensuing melee left the dominant Carl Edwards to watch his title hopes vaporize…and when the smoke cleared, Johnson had the lead for the final restart. Kyle Busch tried to make a run. Joey Logano tried to make a run after getting caught up in the crash. Kyle Larson tried to steal the thunder as well, but Johnson did what’s become a hallmark of his career, coming back from the edge of being down and out to win. His first career win at Homestead sealed the deal on his seventh title, and Johnson will forever be linked with the names that for so long stood alone at the pinnacle of the sport.
While the Chase format has made many question the worth of the title in recent years, what can’t be questioned is Johnson’s tenacity, or his skill in making so many silk purses out of sows’ ears that PETA will probably be investigating him any day now. At Martinsville, former teammate and mentor Jeff Gordon, who chose Johnson for the upstart No. 48 team 15 years ago and convinced Lowes to take a chance on him, called Johnson “the best I’ve ever raced against,” adding that he and Johnson had equal equipment, making their (mostly) friendly rivalry a real test.
Johnson gained the reputation of being “too vanilla” early in his career, but he’s generally down-to-earth and fan friendly. After winning the title, he took the media whirlwind in stride.
The question now isn’t whether Johnson can match Petty and Earnhardt, but whether he can best them. Knaus is one shy of the title record for crew chiefs, so there’s plenty of incentive to win another. Johnson certainly can win races; he’s never won fewer than two in a season and hasn’t won fewer than four since 2011. He’s averaged five wins for the last five years, and that shifts the question to whether he can approach 100 career wins, a feat that’s been accomplished just twice and never by a driver racing his entire career in the sport’s modern era. In other words, there’s still much to be done.