Jimmie Johnson ended up having a record year and a record-tying year in 2016. He began the season back winning the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta, where he led 52 of 330 laps. Johnson also won the Auto Club 400 Fontana, leading 25 of 205 laps. For the rest of the spring, the No. 48 Chevrolet team, with Lowe’s as a primary sponsor all season went quiet.
Although he sat on the pole at the New Hampshire 301 in July, Johnson struggled throughout the summer stretch. At Pocono (June), Daytona (July), Kentucky, Watkins Glen and Darlington, he finished below the top 30 on the board. “The summer months were tough, there’s no doubt,” Johnson said Monday during NBC Sports’ NASCAR America. “I questioned if we would be in championship form. Our goals quickly switched from trying to win the championship to focusing on race wins and leading laps.”
Johnson’s best summer finish came at Indianapolis, also in July, where he came home third. “Once we got to Indy, things started to turn around for us,” he said. “We started leading some laps and had some good finishes.”
When the regular season ended at Richmond back in September, most had written Johnson off as far as a championship went, due to his dismal summer showing. He began the playoff season leading a race-high 118 laps during the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 400 in Chicago, but was plagued by costly pit road penalties. When Johnson returned to New Hampshire for the Bad Boy Off Road 300, he took home an eighth-place finish, followed by a seventh at Dover.
Johnson would not see Victory Lane again until the Bank of America 500 in Charlotte where he dominated leading 155 laps. “We finally got back to Victory Lane and that just set up for a great run through the Chase, which ultimately led to the championship,” he said.
After a fourth-place finish in Kansas and 23rd at Talladega, it was on to Martinsville. Johnson didn’t lead the most laps during the Goody’s Fast Relief 500 but he still ended up on the makeshift victory stage on the .526-mile track’s front stretch and propelled himself to championship hopes.
The Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, the final race of the season and the championship decider, was no easy task. Johnson was scheduled to roll off the grid in the 14th spot but pre-race inspection issues were the first hurdle he’d have to clear en route to his seventh Sprint Cup championship and the 80th win of his career.
Having to start at the rear of the field, Johnson sat fourth in points-as-they-run for the majority of the race. With only five laps completed, he was already making a climb and had cracked the top 10 around the lap-40 mark. However, on a day like this, that was not going to be enough.
The race for the title started to become a real horse race around lap 53 as Johnson was running fifth at the time while his competitors Carl Edwards, Joey Logano and Kyle Busch were running second, third and fourth. The Championship 4 were neck-and-neck.
When Busch’s hopes for defending the title dimmed when one of his pit crew members slipped on pit road with 15 laps to go, it looked to be Edwards and Logano battling it out for the championship. Johnson remained the weakest link and looked to not be a factor at all.
That was until lap 258 when Edwards tried to block Logano and ended up wrecked. While Logano suffered damage but was able to stay on the track, it was the end of the road for Edwards. This put Busch and Johnson back in title contention.
When the 267-lap race went into overtime, it was Johnson in the driver’s seat of the Championship 4 standings. The El Cajon, Calif. native only led three laps but that was all he needed to secure his first win at Homestead and his seventh NASCAR Sprint Cup championship.
With this historic feat, Johnson joins the likes of Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt Sr. as the series leaders in Cup titles. He has also become the third different driver to secure a championship in the elimination-style format in the Chase.
“To see him tie Richard and Dale, it is just unbelievable. I’m still in shock,” Hendrick Motorsports owner Rick Hendrick said. “We are so proud of him. To do it through all these different formats is so special. What a great representative of the sport he is.”
Hendrick Motorsports gets to add a 12th series owner championship, the most all time. This is also HMS’ 15th owner title in a NASCAR National Series.
Johnson and his crew chief Chad Knaus have been partnered up for all seven championship years. While Knaus is second on the all-time championship crew chief list, the all-time leader is Dale Inman, who has eight titles under his belt. Knaus has also been on the pit box for 78 of Jimmie Johnson’s 80 race wins.
Johnson, Knaus and the rest of the No. 48 team finished an impressive 2016 season with five wins, the most of any driver this year. They also earned 11 top five’s, 16 top 10’s and one pole.