NASCAR & Auto Racing

Aiming for Eight: Jimmie Johnson ready to make record-breaking NASCAR run

Jimmie Johnson gets a post-race shower after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship and Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Sunday.
Jimmie Johnson gets a post-race shower after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship and Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Sunday. cjuste@miamiherald.com

It didn’t take long for someone to mention No. 8.

Just two questions into his post-race press conference Sunday night in Homestead, someone asked Jimmie Johnson when he would get his eighth NASCAR Cup championship.

It had only been an hour since he put his stamp on history by joining Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt as the only drivers to hit the exclusive seven-time champ club.

“I knew that was coming,” Johnson said with a laugh.

There's no real reason to believe Johnson, now 41, will not get there and take first place on NASCAR's all-time list for himself.

With the backing of crew chief Chad Knaus and the powerhouse Rick Hendrick racing team, one would think Johnson will at least put himself in position under the new Chase format to be in the hunt.

“I don't know what the chances are, but let's go,” Johnson said. “I'm so excited to put that in front of myself and the team has a hurdle to get over and an accomplishment to achieve.

“This one and the calm nature and the way we went about business and got it done only gives me more confidence for the future. I honestly feel like I'm playing with house money. I never aspired to be famous. I never aspired to be a champion. I just wanted to race.

“I've found a way to put it in that simple mindset here the last couple attempts, in '13 and now in '16. I think it makes us really dangerous, and I look forward to the challenge of trying to get number eight.”

 

Never thought of it that way but, yeah...

A photo posted by George Richards (@georgerichards_305) on

Said Hendrick: “When you think about what it would mean to see Jimmie get eight, and especially when you do it under several different formats ... I think winning seven and tying seven is pretty special. I'm excited to see him, he and Chad, try to break the record now because we're tied, and you can't go to eight until you get seven. That's been pretty special.”

Sunday's championship run was Johnson's first since the 'Championship 4' format was added to the Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway in which all four drivers in the hunt started the race with the same odds to win the season title.

The top finisher of the four wins the championship and over the past three Homestead races, the winner of the race took home the big prize as well.

Johnson, who won five consecutive championships from 2006-10 before winning in 2013 as well, had never won at Homestead before Sunday. Johnson never had to as his previous series championships did not depend on finishing ahead of the pack.

“It's different for sure, to come in with equal points and know that you've got to beat the competitors,” Johnson said Sunday night.

“I don't know, in some ways it took a little stress off because it's pretty simple what you had to do. Although I looked at their rear ends most of the night and wasn't able to mix it up with them.

“I think this format creates a lot of stress, a lot of drama, and we certainly felt like -- I'm sure the world felt like anybody but Jimmie Johnson was going to win the championship with 20 to go, and then it changed so quick with a green-white-checker at the end.

“It's a pretty crazy format to say the least.”

Johnson seemed pretty overwhelmed with all the attention and even some of the love from fans he said normally “shoot me the bird.”

As he was taken around the track for driver introductions, Johnson was looking into the crowd figuring he would see middle fingers high in the air.

Instead, most were saluting him with seven fingers.

“I usually get flipped off a lot,” Johnson said, “they shoot me the bird everywhere we are, every state, everywhere we go. I kept looking up and seeing hands in the air thinking they're shooting me the bird again.

“It was actually seven. All they way around the racetrack everyone was holding up seven, and it just gave me goosebumps, like wow, what an interesting shift in things.

“So I think the fact that we were in the position to tie history, you know, even people wearing other hats and other t-shirts who normally shoot me the bird were holding up seven. It was really cool.”

After Johnson made a last blast out of a final restart to overtake Kyle Larson, the party was on with Hendrick teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. part of the celebration as was retired teammate Jeff Gordon.

NBC SPORTS: Johnson’s championship wasn’t about history but family

Afterward, Dale Jr. told NBC he had his late father on his mind.

Dale Earnhardt won seven Cup championships between 1980-94 and died after crashing on the final turn of the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.

“It’s really emotional for me,’’ Earnhardt said. “I just wish dad was here to see it, shake Jimmie’s hand. I really wish dad could have met Jimmie.

“There’s things that happen in this sport that you wish dad was a witness to and this is definitely one of them.’’

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