Long: Jimmie Johnson’s championship wasn’t about history but family
HOMESTEAD, Fla. — This wasn’t about history. It was about family.
Fathers and sons.
On a night when NASCAR celebrated Jimmie Johnson’s record-tying seventh Sprint Cup championship, the festive mood obscured tears, moments of reflection and pride for Johnson’s father, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Rick Hendrick.
Gary Johnson bubbled after watching his son tie Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt Sr. in series championships. Only a night before, Gary Johnson was in tears.
Before Jimmie Johnson tied history, he sat down and texted his mom, dad, brothers and a close friend.
The notes were similar. The 41-year-old Johnson thanked his dad for all the years of taking him racing, beginning at age 5 when Johnson raced motocross.
The notes were striking not only in the message but that they were sent.
“It was so weird because he had never done that before,’’ Gary Johnson said while his son celebrated.
It was so special that it made him cry.
“I just wanted those five to know that I was thankful for the love and support that they’ve given me over the years,’’ Jimmie Johnson said.
After the tears, his father responded to the text.
It was that howl Johnson heard throughout his racing career, starting in motocross.
“I could always tell where he was on the racetrack because I could hear him scream that,’’ Johnson said.
When Johnson was 7, his father didn’t have to yell very loud. He was beside his son as Johnson won his first racing championship.
A motocross wreck injured Johnson’s knee and he had reconstructive surgery on his birthday. He had to compete in one more race to win the title. So with a cast on, Johnson sought to run one lap to earn the point he needed to clinch the championship. His father ran beside him as Johnson slowly toured the course. When the field came by to lap him, Johnson pulled over. Then he resumed the lap. Once complete, he was a champion.
That experience laid the groundwork for a driver known for his mental toughness and ability to overcome challenging situations, including Sunday when his car often lagged behind title contenders Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards and Joey Logano throughout the 268-lap race.
“Most people in the situation we were in would crumble and he didn’t waver,’’ crew chief Chad Knaus said.
Johnson knows what it is like to struggle. He had modest success in what is now the Xfinity Series, yet impressed Jeff Gordon with how he raced, leading Gordon to recommend Johnson for a ride with Hendrick Motorsports when it sought to expand its Sprint Cup operation.
A driver who won only one Xfinity race shocked the sport by winning five consecutive championships from 2006-10. Johnson added a sixth in 2013 and then came Sunday night.
Among those who celebrated Johnson’s feat was Dale Earnhardt Jr. He beamed, despite a sinus infection, at what his friend had done.
“It’s really emotional for me,’’ Earnhardt said. “I just wish dad was here to see it, shake Jimmie’s hand. I really wish dad could have met Jimmie. There’s things that happen in this sport that you wish dad was a witness to and this is definitely one of them.’’
For those who were there, it was an emotional end. Johnson’s path to a title seemed stymied until Carl Edwards’ block of Joey Logano sent Edwards into the wall and damaged Logano’s car. That put Johnson fourth on a restart with five laps go. Busch restarted third.
A caution for Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s incident created the final restart. Busch pitted for tires. Johnson restarted second, on the bottom of the front row, with Logano behind him.
As they took the green flag for the last time in 2016, Johnson shot to the lead with what he called “the restart of my life.’’
He pulled away. Suddenly Johnson was about to reach his quest for seven titles. Since 2014, Johnson has used the hashtag #se7en to denote his quest for the record-tying title. The unique way of writing it came from car owner Rick Hendrick’s son, Ricky, who was killed in plane crash in 2004 on the way to a race at Martinsville Speedway.
Ricky Hendrick had a small 7 tattooed on his back and he often spelled se7en that way. To honor Ricky Hendrick, Johnson adopted that as his slogan on Twitter.
As he approached the checkered flag, Ricky Hendrick was not far from Johnson’s thoughts.
“Jimmie said to me when I walked up to the window,’’ Rick Hendrick said, “ ‘I was praying, talking to Ricky the last three laps.’
“I love Jimmie and all of our guys always willing to pay tribute to Ricky. I think family is so important to all of us. It means so much that he always thinks about him. Nothing makes us more proud than how he uses that se7en.’’
After exiting his car Sunday, Johnson’s celebration began. Then he found his dad.
Then son said to father: “It’s so awesome!’’