HOMESTEAD, Fla. (AP) – Jimmie Johnson tied Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt with a record seven NASCAR championships when the hard-luck breaks of racing turned Sunday’s title-deciding finale into his crowning moment.
Johnson probably had the worst car of the four championship contenders at Homestead-Miami Speedway, but a strange sequence of events opened the track for him to take the title over Carl Edwards, Joey Logano and defending champion Kyle Busch.
“There was no way on earth,” Johnson said. “I didn’t think that the race was unfolding for us like we needed it to to be the champs. But we kept our heads in the game.”
Edwards was in position to win until a caution with 10 laps remaining set up a wild sequence that ruined his title hopes. Edwards tried to block Logano on the restart, wound up wrecked, and it was Johnson who drove through the wreckage to take the championship lead.
Johnson had to withstand two more restarts, including one in overtime, to score his first career victory at Homestead in the most monumental race of his career.
The title was there for the taking for Edwards until the fateful sequence that changed history.
He was leading when Dylan Lupton brought out a caution with 15 laps remaining, and it forced Edwards to hold off the competition on a restart with 10 to go.
Logano, so masterful on restarts for two years now, tried to dart around Edwards on the bottom. Edwards refused to yield and tried to fend off the move by blocking Logano low. Contact between the two sent Edwards hard into an interior wall, then all the way across the track for a second hit. He had been the most dominant driver of the Chase contenders, but was left with a wrecked car.
“He came down right in front of me,” Logano said on his radio.
Edwards stood on the track and watched the replay of the accident, and appeared to mutter “damn,” hands on hips, before he began a long walk to Logano’s pit box. Once there, he stopped at Logano’s pit box before continuing a journey on foot through the infield to make the mandatory stop at the care center.
He acknowledged he was aggressive protecting his position from Logano.
“I was racing for my life up to that point,” he said. “I just pushed the issue as hard as I could because I figured that was the race there. I had to push it, I couldn’t go to bed tonight and think that I gave him that lane.”
Edwards felt it was important to assure Logano’s team it was just a racing incident, but he made it clear he was rooting for teammate Busch to win.
The benefactor of Edwards’ error, though, was Johnson, who had darted through the wreck ahead of Busch and Logano. Crew chief Chad Knaus pumped his fists in joy, all too aware that a dog of a night had just turned into the race of their lives.
Logano wasn’t giving up his effort, though, and headed to pit road to take on new tires for a final restart.
“This guy on a restart with five laps to go, I’ll take him every day of the week,” crew chief Todd Gordon said.
Logano restarted eighth but was a bull as he pushed his way through traffic and into third place, behind Johnson, after a caution forced another restart.
This time, Johnson got the start of his life and jumped into the lead. He didn’t look back, only forward at the history book.
“Luck came our way and we were able to win the race and win this championship,” he said.