By Toby Christie, NASCAR Editor
HOMESTEAD, Fla. — “I’ve never seen anybody better, that’s for sure.”
Those were the words of Jeff Gordon after a stirring finish in the Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, where Jimmie Johnson led only the final three laps to secure his seventh NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Championship, which ties him in the record books with Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty.
Gordon, who has competed with Johnson since the driver of the No. 48 Chevrolet SS was a rookie in 2002, also went head-to-head with Earnhardt for years. For the four-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Champion, there’s no question as to who the greatest driver to ever strap into a stock car is.
“I raced with Earnhardt and I raced with Jimmie,” Gordon said. “I raced in the same equipment [as Johnson] and I got beat by it on a regular basis, so that already put him at the top of my list. But I think from the outside looking in — and I think the championships are harder to win today then they ever have.”
Over the years, Johnson has won races by the bunches — 80 victories in total after Sunday, putting him among an elite group of drivers that have hit that mark – such as Petty, David Pearson, Gordon and Darrell Waltrip. He’s also piled up a bunch of championship trophies along the way.
However, for many years a large contingent of the fan base refused to put Johnson in their all-time greatest driver conversation.
Reasons varied from Johnson being ‘too vanilla,’ to the fact that the system in place was not the same as what Petty or Earnhardt had to deal with, to just about any other reason you could imagine.
However, over the last few years that stance had began to seriously soften around the NASCAR fan circle.
On Sunday, Jimmie Johnson chased down NASCAR history the hard way by coming from last place — after NASCAR forced changes to his car after pre-race inspection — to win at Homestead to secure yet another NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship.
“That’s what makes a seven-time champion,” Gordon explained. “Somebody like that who battles and fights and digs and never gives up.”
Following the race, Johnson was greeted with an electric atmosphere as he scorched rubber from his Goodyear Eagle slicks on the frontstretch pavement. A sold out crowd screamed to deafening levels. Children were raised into the sky by their parents. Tears began to flow. The fans couldn’t control their emotions, because they had seen something truly historic.
Over a three lap stretch, Johnson officially went from overlooked to never forgotten.
“I used to get flipped off a lot,” Johnson admitted. “They’d shoot me the bird everywhere we are. Every state. Everywhere we go. I kept looking up [tonight] and seeing hands in the air thinking they were shooting me the bird again, and they were holding up seven [fingers]. It just gave me the goosebumps. What an interesting shift.”
Richard Petty, NASCAR’s King, who was the first driver to ever record seven championships in the NASCAR Premier Series in addition to being its all-time leader at 200 wins, welcomed the latest driver in the seven-time champion club.
“Records are a mark and they set something for everyone to shoot at,” Petty said. “Jimmie and his team have done that tonight. They set a goal to get where they are and circumstances and fate made it a reality. They did what they needed to do and now they are at seven championships. Congratulations to him and his team.
“Jimmie is a great champion and this is really good for our sport.”