Jimmie Johnson started Sunday’s race from the back of the field.
He ended it up front – and made auto racing history in the process.
Johnson not only won the Ford EcoBoost 400 at the Homestead-Miami Speedway on a final sprint to the finish, but his victory put him among the greatest to ever get behind the wheel of a stock car as he joined Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt as a seven-time NASCAR Cup champion.
“Wow,” Johnson said as he entered his post-race press conference munching on a slice of pizza.
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The only time Johnson led on Sunday was when it counted as he flew out of a final restart following the last of two late crashes. An overtime lap was added to the race so it could end with a green-white-checkered race to the finish.
“I’m just beyond words,” he said moments after stepping out of his now iconic No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet, the ride he won five consecutive titles in from 2006-10 and again in 2013.
“I didn't think the race was unfolding for us like we needed to do to be the champs, but we just kept our heads in the game. Luck came our way and we were able to win the race and win the championship.”
Said Petty: “Records are a mark and they set something for everyone to shoot at. Jimmie and his team have done that. … Jimmie is a great champion and this is really good for our sport.”
Johnson, who made his first win at Homestead quite memorable, grabbed the lead from a dominant Kyle Larson and held off fellow challengers Kyle Busch and Joey Logano to start a wild celebration in his pit box and around the speedway.
Carl Edwards was knocked out of contention after he and Logano got tangled up with 10 laps left.
In the ‘Championship 4’ format, the four top drivers in line for the Sprint Cup series championship came into Sunday’s race with the same chance to win the title.
The first one across the finish line gets the ring.
Sunday, it was Johnson.
“It means the world to me to join Earnhardt and Petty,” Johnson said. “For some reason, I just felt good and calm today and things just kind of unfolded at the end for us. I know it was help from above. In my heart I wanted to believe it would happen. It has and I just can't believe it.”
Kelley Earnhardt, daughter of the driver who died in a crash on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, tweeted that her father “if here, would happily welcome him to the elite.”
Added Dale Earnhardt Jr.: “He’s in the conversation for the best driver ever.”
The race didn’t start the way Johnson wanted as he was dropped to the back of the field after NASCAR officials his crew made "unapproved body modifications" following the initial inspection.
About 30 minutes before the race was scheduled to start, Johnson ride was pulled off the grid and brought back in for inspection after a race official spotted something askew.
“They were pushing my car away and that was a bit stressful,” he said.
Said crew chief Chad Knaus without elaboration: “We started last and started first.”
Instead of starting on Row 7 alongside Logano, Johnson was sent to the rear – only he didn’t stay there long. Johnson took off from the green and had worked his way back to the middle of the field just four laps in.
By Lap 19, Johnson was back where he should have started and was back among the series challengers up front by Lap 57. All four of the championship drivers were among the top 5 at that point with pole-sitter Kevin Harvick still leading things.
The race was pretty clean with the four championship drivers sticking together near the top of the field as Larson dominated the day as he ended up leading for 132 of the 268 laps.
With 10 laps left, Edwards’ championship dreams came to a crashing halt out of a restart as he went low trying to block Logano and ended up slammed into the inside retaining wall near pit road.
Logano tagged Edwards and sent him spinning into the wall knocking his No. 19 Toyota out of the race.
Logano stayed in and challenged at the end moving up from eighth to fifth on the ensuing restart – yet another wreck brought out another caution. Johnson started the final restart second, took out Larson and the rest is history.
“It was eventful to say the least,” said Logano, who finished fourth in the race and second in the Cup standings.
“I hate being that close to a championship and not getting it. … The championship means so much and everyone forgets about second place. That is what stinks.”
With 30 laps to go, all four drivers were among the top 6 with Busch leading the way in second behind Larson with Edwards in third, Logano fourth and Johnson in sixth.
Edwards took the lead among challengers with 24 remaining as he passed Busch and started giving chase to Larson as he put a full second between himself and the defending Cup champion.
Yet it wasn’t to be for Edwards. After a second-place finish at Homestead to Tony Stewart cost him the Cup championship in 2011, Edwards said he was going for it all at the end. If he didn’t block Logano, his reasoning went, the race and his title hopes would be over anyway.
“That was,” Edwards told NBC after a trip to the infield medical center, “the race of my life up to this point. I just pushed the issue as far as I could. I figured that was the race.”
Only it wasn’t.
Johnson, who had been behind most of the Big 4 for much of the night, worked his way to the front of the pack and made the big move when it counted. Johnson’s move up to second on the next-to-last restart put him in great position to out-run Larson in the final sprint.
“Congrats to Jimmie for winning the championship,” Larson said. “We had the car to win there, and I know that I did everything in my power to win the race.”
The win was Johnson’s 80th in 543 Cup races and fifth of this championship season.
“They were nowhere all day and just kind of ran around, I would guess sixth,” said Busch, the 2015 Cup and Homestead champ. “He never really showed his hand at all and didn’t show any speed, never led in the laps until the last one.
“That’s the only one that really matters.”