“Jimmie, he’s just the complete package,” Gordon said. “They’re the best I’ve ever seen.”
Those remarks came moments after Johnson took the checkered flag at Homestead-Miami Speedway, capturing his record-tying seventh championship in NASCAR’s premier division.
Johnson’s drive that Sunday afternoon is one that he would have never predicted.
At one of Johnson’s worst tracks, with an average finish of 14.1 entering this year, he proved that when it comes to a clutch situation, crew chief Chad Knaus and he are indeed the team to beat.
“I had this crazy weird calmness through the last couple of weeks and then even through the race amongst all the chaos we dealt with, and the fact that we ran like behind those guys all night long, fifth, sixth, wherever we ran, there was just some calmness that was in me,” Johnson said after the race. “I don’t know why I’ve been so calm, but maybe it’s in the cards.”
As the cars were being sent to the starting grid on pit road a mere two hours before the green flag was set to drop, Johnson was notified that his No. 48 car failed qualifying. While he was forced to start at the rear of the field, Knaus was persistent, telling his team not to worry.
Within a lap, Johnson was in the top 30. By Lap 15, he worked his way into the top 20. On Lap 47, he entered the top 5 for the first time during the 400-mile spectacle.
“He knew how bad he wanted it,” Gordon said. “I couldn’t imagine that Jimmie would accomplish what he has or turn into such an amazing driver. This is an amazing team that Chad Knaus put together. They’re the best I’ve ever seen. It’s the whole group staying together and working together. It has been absolutely amazing to watch.”
The record-tying seventh Cup Series title ties NASCAR legends Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt for the most in the sport’s history. Moreover, he earned his 80th victory in NASCAR’s premier division, closing the gap between Gordon (93 wins) and he.
But as Johnson’s seventh championship sinks in, he must recognize the responsibility that comes with being in the same category as Petty and Earnhardt, including being a representative of NASCAR for the rest of his life.
Moving forward, the goal is championship No. 8 for car No. 48.
“I don’t know what the chances are, but let’s go,” Johnson said about going for another title. “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.”
For Gordon to say Johnson is the best he’s ever seen is a bold statement that carries waves throughout the sport. While the four-time champion raced against Petty and Earnhardt as their respective careers dwindled, he claims no one has been as fierce of a competitor as Johnson, who he found while competing in a then-Busch Series race in 2000.
“Jimmie is not just an amazing racecar driver, but he’s a great person,” Gordon said. “You want good things to happen to good people, and I’m extremely proud of him for what he’s done as a racecar driver. But I’m even more proud of him for who he is as a person.”