Greg Cote

Stunning night for Jimmie Johnson, NASCAR, and Miami

Jimmie Johnson (48) celebrates after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series and Ford EcoBoost 400 Championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Sunday, November 20, 2016.
Jimmie Johnson (48) celebrates after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series and Ford EcoBoost 400 Championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Sunday, November 20, 2016. dsantiago@elnuevoherald.com

The two little miracles happened a span of the country apart and came real around the same time Sunday night, and there haven’t been a lot of better, more unexpected finishes for sports that South Florida fans have lucked to enjoy.

The Dolphins were in Los Angeles reviving themselves like a corpse springing to life, scoring two late touchdowns to beat the Rams 14-10 and make it five victories in a row.

Back home, concurrently, down at Homestead-Miami Speedway, something even more stunning and remarkable was happening. History was happening.

Jimmie Johnson did not lead a single one of the 268 laps except the only one that mattered. The last one. The one that won Sunday’s Sprint Cup race. The one that ended NASCAR’s season and won its championship. Oh, yeah, and the one that elevated Johnson, 41, into the company of stock-car legends Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt as the only men to win seven season titles.

First came “The King,” Petty, whose seventh crown came in 1979.

Then came “The Intimidator,” Earnhardt, who won No. 7 in 1994.

Twenty two years later, Johnson might not have an imposing nickname to match those giants, but he has otherwise proven their equal.

“I didn’t know if we’d ever see anybody else win seven,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. said Friday from the track, amid the postrace bedlam celebrating. “I know he’s in the discussion now for best driver ever.”

Petty, still going strong at 79, and also at Homestead as witness, called Johnson’s seventh-heaven triumph “good for our sport,” adding — mysteriously but accurately — “Circumstances and fate made it a reality.”

Oh, yes.

You rarely get to see bona fide sports history actually being made in sports. It is rarer, still, to see the tale write itself like this one did. If you believe in God, perhaps you pictured Him riding shotgun in Johnson’s No. 48 blue Lowe’s Chevrolet on that last lap as the checkered flag waved and a sold-out Speedway crowd of some 60,000 stood in disbelief and roared. Was it Divine Intervention at 200 mph?

This was not a race Johnson should have won.

“I’m sure the world felt like anybody but Jimmie Johnson was going to win the championship with 20 [laps] to go,” said the winner. “But I had this crazy weird calmness.”

Johnson had to finish ahead of fellow final-four contenders Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards and Joey Logano to make history. Whichever of those four finished ahead of the others would reign. But Johnson was made to start 40th in the race — dead last — when a prerace inspection detected an “unapproved body modification.” And this was a track where Johnson had never won a race, one of only four current tracks he’d failed to master.

During the race he’d radioed handling problems to his pit crew. At one point a jack-man on his crew slipped in from of his car, costing Johnson a second or two on his restart — a huge deal in this sport. Nothing was going right. He was running fourth among the quartet of finalists throughout the race, until ... until circumstances and fate took over.

With only 10 laps to go, inside the two-minute warning for this sport, Edwards led and seemed headed for his first career Sprint Cup championship, after he’d finished second in 2008 and again — so narrowly — in 2011. Edwards might be the best current driver to never be king for a year. It was his night.

Except it wasn’t.

With 10 laps to go Logano bumped Edwards’ rear quarter and pushed him into a wall and out of the race. Edwards, out front, was blocking as Logano sprang from a restart after a caution flag and dove for the lower inside lane like a peregrine falcon after prey.

And here is the frustration and the beauty of racing. Both were at fault. And neither were.

Logano had the right to be aggressive, and Edwards had the right to protect his lead. Neither blamed the other.

“I felt like this was our race and our championship,” Edwards said. “That was the race of my life up to that point. I just risked too much. I had to push it. I could not go to bed [Sunday night] and think I gave him that lane.”

Edwards shrugged a little, managed a smile.

“This is life!” he said.

Said Logano: “I don’t blame him. He had to throw the block. And he understands I had to make a move. We both knew. That moment was for a championship.”

The wreck eliminated one of the four contenders, led to a 31-minute red-flag delay, and infused Johnson with new life. Johnson — who got lucky Friday but also seized that opening, and emerged as what crew chief Chad Knaus called, “The most underrated champion in this sport.”

One last caution flag caused a final restart with three laps to go, and Johnson dove low and ahead of Logano, and intro racing history.

“Eventful, to say the least,” said Logano, who finished second in the race and for the season crown.

It was tough to see a wreck deny Edwards his moment, but also tough to not think NASCAR got its perfect ending Sunday night in the farmlands southwest of Miami.

Before the race, thousands of race fans stood and held up two hands with three fingers down: “7.”

“That gave me goosebumps,” Johnson said.

Afterward, the champion was on the main stage, still celebrating the night of his life, and off to the side, up past her bedtime, 6-year-old Genevieve Marie wore a purple dress and jumped up and down with little balled fists, cheering for Daddy.

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