Monday November 21st, 2016

Three thoughts from NASCAR’s season-ending Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway:

• Jimmie Johnson really is that good

And so Jimmie Johnson joins the King and the Intimidator at the top of the NASCAR mountain. He absolutely belongs there. By winning the Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Sunday night, the 41-year-old Johnson captured his seventh NASCAR Cup championship, equaling the career record held by the sport’s two biggest legends, Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt. The California-born Johnson—personable, sunny, a guy who started out as an off-road racer and now competes in triathlons when he’s not behind the wheel—may not project the outsized swagger of his fellow all-timers, but he has proven himself every inch their equal on the race track. He has now won 80 races over the course of his career, earning those victories in perhaps the most competitive era in the sport.

That 80th win didn’t come easy. Johnson, who had never before made it to Victory Lane at Homestead, qualified 14th for Sunday’s race, but actually ended up starting from last place in the field, after being penalized for “unapproved body modifications” on his No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet that showed up in pre-race inspection. Never the fastest car among the title contenders on Sunday (in addition to Johnson, defending champion Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards and Joey Logano comprised the final four), Johnson worked his characteristically quiet magic all day, keeping himself in contention and laying the groundwork for a late move. He got a break when Edwards was eliminated in a late-race wreck. But JJ also made sure he was in position at that time, narrowly missing the wreck himself and emerging in his best position of the day for a final restart. Johnson executed perfectly on that one, pulling away over the final two laps to claim victory and the historic championship.

It was a classic Jimmie Johnson finish: Smooth, unruffled and timed perfectly. Now, how about eight?

Racing
Another painful championship loss in finale for Carl Edwards

• Carl Edwards is a class act

Having won at Phoenix last week to secure his place in the final four, Edwards had to feel as if he was coming into Homestead on a roll and that come Sunday he would have a great shot at his first Cup championship. And it sure looked as if things were playing out in Edwards’s favor as the race unfolded. After running out front with early leader Kevin Harvick from the start, Edwards kept his number 19 ARRIS Toyota clean and fast as he consistently worked the lower groove. Then, with the sun down and the speedway lights on, Edwards steadily and meticulously reeled in his teammate and Chase rival Busch to move into second on Lap 243 behind Kyle Larson and thus take the championship lead. At that point, just as Edwards began to pull away from Busch, a caution came out, necessitating a restart.

It was a fatal turn of fortune for Edwards’s title hopes. He would restart on the inside of the front row, just in front of championship contender Logano, in the number 22 Shell Pennzoil Ford. Logano got a spectacular start and dove to the inside to pass Edwards, who reacted by trying to cut Logano off. Logano clipped him from behind, sending Edwards into the inside wall and from there into a massive pileup with several following cars. Logano squeaked past with no damage, as did the other two contenders, Johnson and Busch. It was a devastating finish for the 37-year-old Edwards, who in 2011 had won at Homestead to tie Tony Stewart in the championship points only to lose the title on a tiebreaker.

Yet, after climbing from his wrecked car, Edwards passed on a ride to the infield care center, opting instead to walk back to the pits, where he stopped at Logano’s pit box to speak to his rival’s crew, telling them that there were no hard feelings, that the incident was “just racing.” Said Edwards later, of the restart,  “I thought everything was going to work out. I just pushed the issue as hard as I could because I figured that was the race right there.”  With a rueful smile, he added, “I had to push it—I couldn’t go to bed tonight knowing I’d given him that lane.” That’s racing, indeed. It’s also grace under pressure.

• NASCAR is going to miss Smoke

Sunday’s race began with an extra parade lap dedicated to Tony Stewart, the three-time Cup champion who was making the final start of his storied 18-season NASCAR career. Behind an official Ford pace truck towing a flowing banner that appeared to be about two acres square emblazoned with the message THANK YOU SMOKE, the 45-year-old Stewart enjoyed a solo circuit of the track with the crowd cheering him all the way around before he blended back into the field for the start. It was a fitting tribute to a driver (and team owner) who made a career out of giving the fans everything he had pretty much every lap of every race. 

Stewart, who came to NASCAR from the open-wheel world of IndyCar, was perfectly suited to the rubbin’-is-racin’ ethos of NASCAR. Sure, more than a few times in his career the stormy Indiana native (whose nickname was well-earned) got a bit too aggressive either on or off the track—as NASCAR executive Mike Helton wryly observed while delivering a tribute to Stewart in the pre-race drivers’ meeting, Smoke was a frequent visitor to the officials’ hauler (NASCAR’s equivalent of the principal’s office). But fans thrilled to his passion, and to his skill. Stewart was a brilliant and extraordinarily versatile driver, who won 49 times on the Cup circuit on all types of circuits. He was also a larger-than-life character. There are plenty of young drivers on the circuit who will win their share of races in the seasons ahead, but it’s hard to imagine any of them filling the ample firesuit of Tony the Tiger. 

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