Jimmie Johnson was once a villain. At least to a large segment of NASCAR fans. The California native invaded NASCAR, a sport born in the South, in 1998. He wasn’t the first, Jeff Gordon had famously paved the way before him, but NASCAR fans were still a bit leery of the boys from California, especially with the Gordon-Earnhardt Sr. rivalry of the 1990s still fresh.
After signing with Hendrick Motorsports, and entering the NASCAR Cup series fulltime in 2002, Johnson began winning races; three in his rookie season, then eight just two years later.
Johnson won five races in 2006, and his first title. That was the first of five consecutive NASCAR Cup titles for Johnson. During his consecutive title run from 2006 to 2010, Johnson and his Hendrick Motorsports crew led by Chad Knaus, won 36 Cup races.
During this period of domination, NASCAR tweaked the Chase rules; some called them “Johnson rules”, yet Johnson still won. And the more he won, the more many fans hated him. The rallying cry became “Anyone but Jimmie”. When he was introduced, the boos from fans rivaled the cheers.
Johnson would struggle for the title in 2011 and 2012. He still won races, but was never in contention for the Cup title. That changed in 2013 when Johnson won six races and his sixth title. NASCAR would add the Elimination format starting in 2014, paring the field of 16 eligible drivers down to 4 who would race for the title at Homestead.
The Elimination format wasn’t kind to Johnson. In the first two years of its existence, Johnson finished a career worst, 11th and 10th in the season standings, and failed to advance beyond the second round. The driver nicknamed Superman, had seemingly found his Kryptonite.
It all changed this season. Johnson not only advanced to the final round, but he won his first race at Homestead Sunday, and a record seventh NASCAR Cup title. A record as Johnson joined legendary drivers Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt Sr., as the only drivers in NASCAR history to win seven Cup championships.
Unlike his past race wins and championships however, the “Anyone but Jimmie” contingent, seemed silent. When introduced prior to the race Sunday, the cheers for Johnson were very evident, the boos of the past were not.
Perhaps that was because his 2016 title run wasn’t an easy one. He did win five races, but those wins were mixed with four DNFs, and struggles on the track and in the pits in other races that left him with sub-par finishes.
Even Sunday the hopes for a seventh title looked like to be a nearly impossible uphill battle. Prior to the start of the race, NASCAR officials noticed an anomaly on the No. 48 Chevy. The team was forced to pull the car from the starting grid. They affected repairs, and the car passed a hasty re-inspection. Johnson, however, was forced to start at the back of the field.
He was undeterred though, and soon Johnson was charging towards the front of the field. But Johnson was the lowest running of the four championship contenders for much of the 268 laps, and it appeared that Johnson’s hopes for a seventh title were over.
As it turned out, Johnson was far from done.
A late race crash involving two of the four, Carl Edwards and Joey Logano, and a decision by the team of Kyle Busch to pit for four tires just prior to a green-white-checkered flag finish, put Johnson near the front. He would only get credit for leading a total of three laps, including the final one where he passed the dominating force of the race Kyle Larson. Johnson would pass Larson, and the rest, as they say, is history. Even his competitors in the Chase seemed a bit stunned at the turnaround for Johnson.
“It’s funny because all of us were up there racing against each other, and the 48 came through the field the first run, and I was like, oh, my goodness,” Joey Logano who finished fourth in the race and second in the Chase said. “He was all the way up to me, and he started last. I was like, we’re in trouble. And then he kind of stalled out there.”
“When Carl and I got into each other there, that just pretty much parted the seas for the 48 (Johnson) to run through there and gain a couple spots and put himself in position to win,” he added. You know, he was in the right place at the right time.”
When it was over, when the confetti was flying, and the champagne was spraying, there was nothing but a collective roar of approval from the legions of NASCAR fans that had streamed onto the track to celebrate with Johnson and his team.
Perhaps it was because of the way Johnson went about his 2016 title run. During his consecutive title years, it seemed as though Johnson could do no wrong; he was always winning and in contention. This year however he struggled at times. Yet Johnson did just what he had to do to win it all. He wasn’t always in contention, wasn’t always the dominating force, yet he did what he had to do to etch his name in the NASCAR history books.
And gained fans in the process.
The boos were nearly silent Sunday; the cheers for Johnson were louder than ever before. And he took notice of that prior to the race.
“When I jumped in the back of the pickup truck after driver intros and they had the four of us and we were going around the track. I usually get flipped off a lot,” Johnson said Sunday night. “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 we were today to tie history, you know, even people wearing other hats and other tee shirts that normally shoot me the bird were holding up seven,” he added. “It was really cool.”
It seems that Clark Kent took off his glasses, jumped back into the phone booth and emerged with his Superman cape flowing in the wind. And for the first time the NASCAR Nation seems glad to see him.