Jimmie Johnson has become accustomed to hand gestures from fans over the years.
After amassing six NASCAR titles in eight seasons – faster than either Richard Petty or Dale Earnhardt – the driver of the No. 48 Lowe’s Chevy made the feat appear easy.
Johnson knew the single-finger salute wasn’t the masses indicating he was number one. But before winning his seventh Cup championship on Sunday, there was a different vibe emanating from the crowd.
“When I jumped in the back of the pickup truck after driver intros and they had the four of us and we were going around the track, I usually get flipped off a lot,” Johnson said. “They shoot me the bird everywhere we are, every state, everywhere we go.
“I kept looking up and seeing hands in the air thinking 'They're shooting me the bird again.' It was actually seven. All the way around the racetrack, everyone was holding up seven, and it just gave me goosebumps, like, 'Wow, what an interesting shift in things.'"
Maybe the tide has changed.
After Johnson became the first driver in NASCAR history to win four consecutive titles – topping his childhood hero Cale Yarborough’s record from the 1970s – then earning five straight in 2010, pundits credited the Hendrick Motorsports equipment. Fans were in denial. Johnson had upstaged another Californian, Jeff Gordon, who had four championships, and a record of seven titles established by southern stock car legends Petty and Earnhardt was in jeopardy.
Clearly, Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus had discovered a winning formula for the Chase format. The team accumulated enough points and wins during the first third of the season to test through the summer months and sharpen their program for the playoffs. The strategy worked incredibly well. Although Tony Stewart ended their streak in 2011 and Brad Keselowski won the title in 2012, Johnson & Company were hoisting the Cup at Homestead-Miami Speedway again in 2013.
Johnson, who then had six championships and 66 wins, still wasn’t resonating with the fans. Could NASCAR ramp up excitement and Jimmie-proof the Chase by changing the structure?
In 2014, elimination rounds were introduced in the playoff system. For the first time in Johnson’s career, he finished outside of the top-10 in the standings. Last year, the No. 48 team also failed to advance beyond the second round of the Chase.
And although Hendrick Motorsports struggled as a company over the summer this season, Johnson and Knaus battled through the slump and successfully executed their strategy throughout the Chase. Johnson’s average finish of ninth in the first round easily allowed him to transfer to the Round of 12. A win at Charlotte followed by a win at Martinsville in the Round of 8, locked Johnson into the Championship 4 round ahead of the competition.
Having finally qualified as one of the final four drivers at Homestead, Johnson was remarkably calm. Knaus, who is wound incredibly tight, was simply relieved.
“To go through a bit of a lull, not make the Chase, not be able to come down here and compete for two years straight, that is so difficult,” Knaus said. “I don't think you guys can even understand because it's not like we just decided to work hard only once in a while.
“We as a group work so hard for 38 events to lead up to this race.”
Johnson, who Knaus describes as “California cool," carried that demeanor into the season finale. And he felt the support of the crowd behind him before climbing into the car.
“I think the fact that we were in the position we were today to tie history, you know, even people wearing other hats and other tee shirts that normally shoot me the bird were holding up seven,” Johnson said. “It was really cool.”
The pressure of the moment never affected Johnson. He didn’t fret when NASCAR penalized the team for unapproved body modifications in pre-race inspection, forcing him to start the Ford EcoBoost 400 from the rear of the field. He wasn’t unnerved when his jackman slipped during a pit stop on Lap 69 or 50 laps later when the No. 48 exited 11th — and dropped 15 seconds behind the leaders.
“There was this weird, comfortable confidence I had all night long,” Johnson said. “Maybe 'weird' is the wrong word to use, but I was just… I felt like something was going to happen, and I was going to be OK with it.”
With 10 laps remaining in the race, Johnson restarted fifth behind Kyle Larson and Carl Edwards. Edwards blocked Joey Logano, who punted the No. 19 into the wall. Johnson moved to fourth — and then to second on the subsequent restart lap before a Ricky Stenhouse Jr. wreck sent the race into overtime.
Again, there was a calmness surrounding Johnson. After escaping the nine-car wreck, he was back in contention. Title No. 7 was attainable.
“We get to second, and I'm like, you've got to be kidding me,” Johnson said. “There's really a shot at this thing. Then I get the restart of my life at the end and I get clear off of Turn 2, and… I got the goosebumps down the backstretch. I'm like, you've got to be kidding me.”
After the early congratulations came from fellow Chase competitors, other racers and friends, Johnson worked his way to the Champion’s stage surrounded by cheering fans, hands raised with seven digits held high.
If there was any question whether Johnson would be embraced as a seven-time champion, he put the doubt to rest on Sunday night in Homestead.