Long: Jimmie Johnson’s championship wasn’t about history but family

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HOMESTEAD, Fla. — This wasn’t about history. It was about family.

Fathers and sons.

On a night when NASCAR celebrated Jimmie Johnson’s record-tying seventh Sprint Cup championship, the festive mood obscured tears, moments of reflection and pride for Johnson’s father, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Rick Hendrick.

Gary Johnson bubbled after watching his son tie Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt Sr. in series championships. Only a night before, Gary Johnson was in tears.

Before Jimmie Johnson tied history, he sat down and texted his mom, dad, brothers and a close friend.

The notes were similar. The 41-year-old Johnson thanked his dad for all the years of taking him racing, beginning at age 5 when Johnson raced motocross.

The notes were striking not only in the message but that they were sent.

“It was so weird because he had never done that before,’’ Gary Johnson said while his son celebrated.

It was so special that it made him cry.

“I just wanted those five to know that I was thankful for the love and support that they’ve given me over the years,’’ Jimmie Johnson said.

After the tears, his father responded to the text.

“Yooow!’’

It was that howl Johnson heard throughout his racing career, starting in motocross.

“I could always tell where he was on the racetrack because I could hear him scream that,’’ Johnson said.

When Johnson was 7, his father didn’t have to yell very loud. He was beside his son as Johnson won his first racing championship.

A motocross wreck injured Johnson’s knee and he had reconstructive surgery on his birthday. He had to compete in one more race to win the title. So with a cast on, Johnson sought to run one lap to earn the point he needed to clinch the championship. His father ran beside him as Johnson slowly toured the course. When the field came by to lap him, Johnson pulled over. Then he resumed the lap. Once complete, he was a champion.

That experience laid the groundwork for a driver known for his mental toughness and ability to overcome challenging situations, including Sunday when his car often lagged behind title contenders Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards and Joey Logano throughout the 268-lap race.

“Most people in the situation we were in would crumble and he didn’t waver,’’ crew chief Chad Knaus said.

Johnson knows what it is like to struggle. He had modest success in what is now the Xfinity Series, yet impressed Jeff Gordon with how he raced, leading Gordon to recommend Johnson for a ride with Hendrick Motorsports when it sought to expand its Sprint Cup operation.

A driver who won only one Xfinity race shocked the sport by winning five consecutive championships from 2006-10. Johnson added a sixth in 2013 and then came Sunday night.

Among those who celebrated Johnson’s feat was Dale Earnhardt Jr. He beamed, despite a sinus infection, at what his friend had done.

“It’s really emotional for me,’’ Earnhardt said. “I just wish dad was here to see it, shake Jimmie’s hand. I really wish dad could have met Jimmie. There’s things that happen in this sport that you wish dad was a witness to and this is definitely one of them.’’

For those who were there, it was an emotional end. Johnson’s path to a title seemed stymied until Carl Edwards’ block of Joey Logano sent Edwards into the wall and damaged Logano’s car. That put Johnson fourth on a restart with five laps go. Busch restarted third.

A caution for Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s incident created the final restart. Busch pitted for tires. Johnson restarted second, on the bottom of the front row, with Logano behind him.

As they took the green flag for the last time in 2016, Johnson shot to the lead with what he called “the restart of my life.’’

He pulled away. Suddenly Johnson was about to reach his quest for seven titles. Since 2014, Johnson has used the hashtag #se7en to denote his quest for the record-tying title. The unique way of writing it came from car owner Rick Hendrick’s son, Ricky, who was killed in plane crash in 2004 on the way to a race at Martinsville Speedway.

Ricky Hendrick had a small 7 tattooed on his back and he often spelled se7en that way. To honor Ricky Hendrick, Johnson adopted that as his slogan on Twitter.

As he approached the checkered flag, Ricky Hendrick was not far from Johnson’s thoughts.

“Jimmie said to me when I walked up to the window,’’ Rick Hendrick said, “ ‘I was praying, talking to Ricky the last three laps.’

“I love Jimmie and all of our guys always willing to pay tribute to Ricky. I think family is so important to all of us. It means so much that he always thinks about him. Nothing makes us more proud than how he uses that se7en.’’

After exiting his car Sunday, Johnson’s celebration began. Then he found his dad.

They hugged.

Then son said to father: “It’s so awesome!’’

NASCAR America: Matt DiBenedetto on Indy success with small team

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Matt DiBenedetto has just three top-10 finishes in his three years of competing in the NASCAR Cup Series. But two of them have come this year in two of the biggest races in the sport.

DiBenedetto, who drives the No. 32 Ford for Go Fas Racing, finished ninth in the Daytona 500 in February and eighth in Sunday’s Brickyard 400.

DiBenedetto, who was also celebrating his 26th birthday, joined NASCAR America to discuss his run at Indy and what is considered a successful race for his team, which has 15 crew members.

“You’ve got to keep it in the perception of your versions of wins are a little bit different than everybody else’s version,” DiBenedetto said. “We look at it as who we’re racing around. I would say on a regular week where there’s not a ton of chaos like Indy was, a top 20 is a really good day. A top 25 is if we just do our job.”

Watch the video for the full segment.

Chase Elliott, AJ Allmendinger unveil Darlington throwback schemes

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Both Chase Elliott and AJ Allmendinger have revealed the paint schemes they’ll drive in the Sept. 3 Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway.

Elliott will use his No. 24 Chevrolet to pay tribute to the car his father, NASCAR Hall of Famer Bill Elliott, drove in his first Cup start.

The light blue look was on his No. 9 car when he started in the Feb. 29, 1976 race at Rockingham Speedway.

The car was revealed on Facebook in the below video.

AJ Allmendinger will pay tribute to two-time Cup champion Terry Labonte with his No. 47 Chevrolet.

The car will resemble the No. 44 Piedmont Airlines Oldsmobile that Labonte drove in during the 198 Cup season when he competed for owner Billy Hagan.

NASCAR America: Felix Sabates: ‘I’m lucky to be here’ after near-death experience from illness last year

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For nearly a month last year Felix Sabates was at death’s door.

The fears were so great that Sabates might not wake up from a coma he spent 29 days in, Chip Ganassi bought a blue suit for the possibility he might have to attend his co-owner’s funeral.

But the 71-year-old made a full recovery through a rehab process that included learning to walk again.

NASCAR America’s Kyle Petty and Sabates have a special relationship. Petty drove the No. 42 car for Sabates’ SABCO Racing for eight years in the 1980s and 1990s, winning six of his eight Cup races for the millionaire owner from Cuba.

Sabates sat down with Petty to discuss the ordeal, which began in January 2016 when Sabates began feeling ill during the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

“I came home and woke up the next morning and I (couldn’t) breath,” said Sabates, who drove himself to the hospital. “The minute they saw me I was in intensive care.”

Sabates was in the hospital for two and half weeks before he was released, but Sabates “should’ve know I wasn’t cured.”

The Chip Ganassi Racing co-owner returned to his usual grind until it caught up to him in August.

“My blood pressure was through the roof, my oxygen level was 55, which you should be dead then,” recalled Sabates, who has no memory of a three-month stretch. “They thought was I was brain-dead. They were pretty much going to disconnect me. So 4 o’clock in the morning, they took my tubes out.”

That’s when Sabates began the process of waking up.

“I’m lucky to be here,” said Sabates, who aside from being back at the track is also back to playing golf.

“I used to worry about little things,’ Sabates said. “Now I don’t even worry about big things.”

The full feature will air Sunday on Countdown to Green, which begins at 2:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN before the Cup race at Pocono.

NASCAR America: Ryan Blaney glad Team Penske news is finally out in the open

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On Wednesday it was finally announced that Ryan Blaney would move from Wood Brothers Racing to Team Penske full-time next year in the Cup Series in the No. 12 Ford while Paul Menard will take over the No. 21 Ford.

NASCAR America’s Dave Burns caught up with Blaney on Thursday. Blaney was happy that his 2018 plans were finally public knowledge.

Blaney also acknowledged how a technical alliance between the two teams helped Wood Brothers Racing return to a competition level that allowed Blaney to get his first Cup win this season earlier this year.

“That was a big deal,” Blaney said. “That was getting us to where we could run a full-time season. That was really helpful not only to me but to (crew chief) Jeremy Bullins, will be coming with me to the 12 car.”

Blaney has been driving for Team Penske part-time in the Xfinity Series since 2012.

“It’s been nice to get the news and tell everybody finally about what we’re doing,” Blaney said. “But mainly we’re trying to finish this year out strong with the Wood Brothers, getting their 100th win, that’s really big. That’s on my bucket list for this year and getting as far as we can in the playoffs.”

The No. 21 team returns to Pocono Raceway this weekend, the site of Blaney’s first Cup win last month.

Watch the video for the full interview.