HOMESTEAD, Fla. — Jimmie Johnson already was the greatest driver in NASCAR history before Sunday night, when he won his record-tying seventh Sprint Cup series championship.
Five titles in a row during NASCAR’s most competitive era, plus another three years later, was enough to determine that.
But now that Johnson has No. 7, tied with Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt Sr., there’s no disputing he’ll be a permanent fixture on NASCAR’s Mount Rushmore, no matter what drivers come along in future generations.
Johnson, 41 and the youngest to get to seven, might not be done. Paired with Chad Knaus — who is one shy of the championship record of eight titles for a crew chief, a mark held by Dale Inman — there could be more titles to come. How high can Johnson set the bar? Maybe he can stand alone at the top with No. 8. He’ll certainly have a good shot in 2017.
“I mean, let’s go,” Johnson said. “I’m so excited to put that in front of myself (and) the team as a hurdle to get over and achieve. This one only gives me only more confidence for the future. … I think it makes us really dangerous, and I look forward to the challenge of getting No. 8.”
But whether this is the last one or not, it will be remembered.
Critics tried to dismiss Johnson’s five in a row from 2006 to 2010 as an incredible hot streak, a product of a Chase format that valued late-season excellence over season-long consistency. Sunday, though, put a huge dent in that argument.
No one handed Johnson anything this year, as he fought through one of Hendrick Motorsports’ worst seasons as a company just to make it to the finale. Then his car was found to have illegal modifications before the race, and NASCAR penalized him, forcing him to start in the back of the field.
That might have been a blow for many teams in such a stressful situation, but Johnson and his crew shook it off. He already was in the top five less than 50 laps into the race — though he couldn’t maintain his spot.
Johnson was an afterthought for most of the night. As rivals Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards and Joey Logano raced far ahead of him, Johnson was mired around 10th place. At one point, Knaus was just making changes to the car out of desperation — and it seemed this wouldn’t be his year.
“I’m sure the world felt like anybody but Jimmie Johnson was going to win the championship with 20 to go,” Johnson said.
But you can never count this team out. There were so many times in his five consecutive titles that he overcame adversity. It happened again Sunday.
Just when it looked grim, a crash between Edwards and Logano with 10 laps to go gave him new life. Another crash sparked an overtime finish, and Johnson was close enough to the front to sniff the lead.
Once that happened, nobody else had a chance.
“He is probably the most underrated champion in this sport,” Knaus said. “Most people in the situation we were just in would crumble, and he didn’t even waver. He knew (what) he needed to do, he knew what the demands were at that point, and he made it happen. The real spark in this whole thing is Jimmie.”
This championship feels different, and it’s not just because of the history-making achievement. The fans at Homestead were craving a Johnson victory, cheering wildly in the final laps when he took the lead. Johnson was surprised when he looked into the stands and saw people holding up seven fingers instead of the usual middle one.
This was the year fans seemingly started to warm to the idea of Johnson as a NASCAR icon. He received more cheers than boos all season, and 58% of fans in an informal Twitter poll before the finale told USA TODAY Sports they were rooting for him.
The majority got what it wanted, and the others have no choice but to respect the achievement. Even a change in the Chase format — which some said was an attempt to “Jimmie-proof” it — couldn’t stop him.
In the third year of this elimination-style format, he found the consistency and luck he had been missing.
Earnhardt tied Petty in 1994 with title No. 7, so any fan who just reached legal drinking age and anybody younger thatn that wasn’t alive to see it. But they — and all of us — have now witnessed history. Perhaps there’s more to come.
“The five in a row was pretty phenomenal, and seven is pretty special,” said Rick Hendrick, who won his record-extending 12th title as team owner. “I’m excited to see he and Chad try to break the record now, because we’re tied. And you can’t go to eight until you get to seven.”