Then, appropriately, his performance at the winner-take-all finale in South Florida was a microcosm of his performance in the playoffs, compared to most of the season. After trailing his three fellow championship contenders for most of the race, he took advantage of others’ misfortune and came on strong at the end to capture the victory and the title in electrifying fashion. Johnson led only three laps, but they were the final three laps. “When I was coming to the checkered flag, I had to really look closely at it going by to make sure it was. It was like, ‘Is this really happening?’” the El Cajon, California, native said. “I don’t know what I screamed on the radio, but I know it didn’t sound like my voice. I was thinking, ‘You’d better take your finger off the button. That didn’t sound like you.’ That was as dramatic and as crazy as I’ve ever experienced in my racing career.” The victory was the 80th of Johnson’s illustrious career and his first at Homestead — one of only four current Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series tracks where he’d never been to Gatorade Victory Lane. More importantly, Johnson tied first-ballot NASCAR Hall of Famers Richard Petty (2010) and Dale Earnhardt (2010) as the only drivers with seven championships in NASCAR’s premier series. Petty, the all-time leader with 200 premier series victories, was on hand to witness the historic occasion, which came 22 years after Earnhardt joined him as a seven-time champ. “Records are a mark and they set something for everyone to shoot at,” said Petty, who won his seventh championship in 1979. “Jimmie and his team did that. They set a goal to get where they are, and circumstances and fate made it a reality.” The biggest lesson to be learned from Johnson’s late-season resurgence in 2016? Johnson, crew chief Chad Knaus and the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team can’t ever be written off. Throughout his stellar career, Johnson — never the flashiest or most boisterous of drivers — has been underestimated by some pundits and even a few competitors only to consistently prove his naysayers wrong. “I hate to be this blunt, but … he is probably the most underrated champion in this sport, to be honest with you,” said Knaus, Johnson’s crew chief for all seven of his championships. “He is a fantastic, fantastic individual, an amazing race car driver. 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 on him at that point in time, and he made it happen. Jimmie Johnson joined Joey Logano (far left), Carl Edwards (center right) and Kyle Busch (far right) as finalists for the 2016 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship. Chris Trotman/NASCAR via Getty Images Jimmie Johnson (right) has won all seven of his NASCAR premier series championships with crew chief Chad Knaus. Jerry Markland/NASCAR via Getty Images 146 ANTHEM MOTORSPORTS ANNUAL “You know, and that’s the difference in the whole thing from my standpoint. We’ve got a great team. We’ve got a great owner. We’ve got a great everything at Hendrick Motorsports, it's fantastic, but the fact of the matter is the real spark in this whole thing is Jimmie.” With a seventh championship trophy in his possession, Johnson enters 2017 with one overarching goal in mind: Becoming the only eight-time champion of NASCAR’s premier series. “I don’t know what the chances are, but let’s go,” Johnson said. “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. Last year’s Championship 4 race and the calm nature and the way we went about business and got it done only give me more confidence for the future. I honestly feel like I’m playing with house money. I never aspired to be famous. I never aspired to be a champion. I just wanted to race. “I’ve found a way to put it in that simple mindset here the last couple championship attempts, in ‘13 and in ‘16. I think it makes us really dangerous, and I look forward to the challenge of trying to get number eight.” It’s a challenge that Johnson’s boss — NASCAR Hall of Famer and 12-time NASCAR premier series champion team owner Rick Hendrick (2017) — likewise fully embraces. “I think winning seven and tying seven is pretty special,” Hendrick said. “I’m excited to see him, he and Chad, try to break the record.” Less inclined to outwardly ponder the implications of an eighth championship is Knaus, who is well-known for his workaholic tendencies and no-nonsense approach to leading the No. 48 team. “I really just think about the next event,” Knaus said. “The next event could be qualifying, the next event could be practice, the next event could be the race. It could be whatever it may be, and I feel like for me, that’s the safest environment for me to operate, knowing that there’s always that next goal that needs to be achieved, that next goal that needs to be accomplished, and keeping our guys in that mindset. “Not that I don’t want them to enjoy and bask in the opportunity to go out there and battle for championships, or myself; I do enjoy it. That’s why we do it. But looking at the numbers right now isn’t really what I’m about.” But the possibility of Johnson notching a history-making eighth championship is what much of the NASCAR world will be talking about with the dawn of a new season. So much for Johnson and the No. 48 bunch flying under the radar anymore. Then again, they probably wouldn’t have it any other way.
2017 Anthem Annual February
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