NASCAR America: Will Dale Earnhardt Jr. really retire if he wins championship? (video)

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Earlier Tuesday on the Dan Patrick Show on NBCSN, Dale Earnhardt Jr. surprised many of his fans by saying that he’d likely retire on the spot of the annual post-season awards banquet in Las Vegas if he were to win the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship.

Later Tuesday on NASCAR America, hosts Carolyn Manno, Kyle Petty and Parker Kligerman talked about Junior’s prediction. Would he really retire? Check out what the hosts had to say.

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Sprint Cup pole winners list after 2016

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The 2016 Sprint Cup season saw three veterans set career marks for poles in a season and two drivers earn their first poles.

Carl Edwards (six), Martin Truex Jr. (five) and Austin Dillon (two) achieved personal bests during the 36-race season, which had 14 different pole winners.

Chase Elliott started the year with his first pole in the Daytona 500. Then in the fall race at Phoenix International Raceway, Alex Bowman, substituting for Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the No. 88, won his first pole in the Can-Am 500.

Despite not having won a pole since 2013, Ryan Newman still has a huge lead over active full-time drivers with 51 poles. And despite saying multiple times this season he’s not very good at qualifying, Jimmie Johnson added to his second best total with his 35th pole.

Tony Stewart ended his Sprint Cup career with 15 poles.

Here’s a look at how the list of active full-time drivers with poles looks after 2016.

Ryan Newman – 51 poles; Last – 2013 Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire

Jimmie Johnson – 35 poles; Last – 2016 New Hampshire 301

Kasey Kahne – 27 poles; Last – 2015 Quicken Loans 400 at Michigan

Denny Hamlin – 24 poles; Last – 2016 Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond

Carl Edwards – 22 poles; Last – 2016 Bad Boy Off Road 300 at New Hampshire

Kurt Busch  21 poles; Last – 2016 Kobalt 400 at Las Vegas

Kyle Busch – 19 poles; Last – 2016 Brickyard 400

Matt Kenseth  18 poles; Last – 2016 Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas

Joey Logano – 17 poles; Last – 2016 Pure Michigan 400

Kevin Harvick – 17 poles; Last – 2016 Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead

Greg Biffle – 13 poles; Last – 2016 Coke Zero 400 at Daytona

Dale Earnhardt Jr. – 13 poles; Last – 2013 AAA 400 at Dover

Martin Truex Jr. – 12 poles; Last – 2016 Goody’s Fast Relief 500 at Martinsville

Brad Keselowski –  12 poles; Last – 2016 Axalta ‘We Paint Winners’ 400 at Pocono

Jamie McMurray – 11 poles; Last –  2014 Goody’s Headache Relief Shot 500 at Martinsville

AJ Allmendinger – four poles; Last – 2015 Cheez-It 355 at Watkins Glen

Casey Mears – three poles; Last – 2007 USG Sheetrock 400 at Chicagoland

Austin Dillon – three poles; Last – 2016 AAA Texas 500

David Ragan – two poles; Last – 2011 Brickyard 400

Clint Bowyer – two poles; Last – 2007 Sylvania 300

Chase Elliott – two poles; Last – 2016 Geico 500 at Talladega

Danica Patrick – one pole; Last – 2013 Daytona 500

Paul Menard – one pole; Last – 2009 Coke Zero 400 at Daytona

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. – one pole; 2013 AdvoCare 500 at Atlanta

Kyle Larson – one pole; 2014 GoBowling.com 400 at Pocono

Aric Almirola – one pole; 2012 Coca-cola 600 at Charlotte

Upon Further Review: Big turnaround at Hendrick Motorsports but work remains

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HOMESTEAD, Fla. — It was a celebration that seemed unlikely four months ago, let alone with 20 laps left in Sunday’s Sprint Cup Series finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Yet, after the checkered flag waved on the 2016 season, Jimmie Johnson, crew chief Chad Knaus and their Hendrick Motorsports team reunited on the champion’s stage.

While the organization earned its record 12th Cup title and Johnson scored his record-tying seventh, it doesn’t mask that this was one of the more challenging seasons for car owner Rick Hendrick.

As the No. 48 team and organization struggled, he asked Johnson and Knaus at one point this year if they were still good working together.

“I think it’s the toughest question when you have a relationship,’’ Hendrick said of why he would consider spitting Johnson and Knaus, who have been together since Johnson’s rookie year in 2002. “It can be in a dealership, it can be in a race team, when you have two guys that have been so good and you try to decide is it time? This year we started off really well, and then we hit a lull in the summer, and … we asked ourselves then, is this time, do we need to make a change?

“I think they have both made a commitment, they want to retire together. They want to finish their careers together.

“So when there’s problems, everybody kind of locks arms. This year the whole organization did (that) about the summer and the speed picked up for all the cars.’’

That’s what Hendrick Motorsports will need to do if it looks to rebound from such a challenging year. Consider:

— The organization endured a 24-race winless streak, its longest drought since a 28-race streak from 1984-86, dating back to the team’s inaugural season.

— Hendrick Motorsports’ fives victories this season were the fewest since 2011. The organization had averaged 10.25 wins a year in the previous four seasons. The last time Hendrick scored fewer than five wins in a season was 2000 when it had four.

Chase Elliott, Kasey Kahne, Dale Earnhardt Jr. (and Jeff Gordon and Alex Bowman in place of Earnhardt) went winless for Hendrick this season.

— Hendrick Motorsports’ 29 top-five finishes  were the fewest since 2002 when the team had 23.

— Hendrick Motorsports’ 57 top-10 finishes were its fewest since 2005 when it had 49.

Johnson admitted last week that when his team was going through its struggles — he had three top-10 finishes in a 15-race stretch — he worried about the season.

“I thought we could make it through some rounds and maybe get to the Round of 8, Round of 12, but I didn’t think I could sit here and honestly tell you guys that we were a favorite for the championship or had a shot to win it,’’ Johnson said.

Things changed at Indianapolis. Johnson finished third and steadily the team’s performance improved, leading him to win three of the season’s last six races.

Now, Johnson looks toward a record-breaking eighth title.

“I don’t know what the chances are, but let’s go,’’ Johnson said Sunday night. “I look forward to the challenge of trying to get number eight.’’

RELAXED

Jimmie Johnson said that throughout the week and Sunday’s race he felt a sense of calm. He was so relaxed that during the 31-minute delay to clean up the nine-car wreck triggered by title contenders Carl Edwards and Joey Logano, Johnson dozed off in his car.

“I actually took a brief nap in the car and kind of woke up to the news that we were going to restart fourth, which was the ideal position to be in on that restart,’’ Johnson told NBC Sports. “Instantly, I just felt a momentum shift and smiled and knew that this calmness that I had through the course of the race, there really was a reason and purpose behind it that served me in the end.’’

Still, how does someone sleep in a car when they’re awaiting the final laps of a race that could tie them with Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt for most series championships?

“It’s so warm and comfortable in the car,’’ Johnson said. “You get sleepy in there at times. There had been such an emotional rush through the course of the race and working so hard to get into position. We sat there and we sat there and we sat there. I’m not sure I was out long, but definitely relaxed enough and took a siesta.’’

PIT STOPS

Tony Stewart finished his Sprint Cup career with 49 wins, 187 top-five finishes, 308 top-10 results, 15 poles and 12,815 laps led.

— Tony Stewart confirmed he will not need any further surgery. “We are free and clear this year on surgeries,’’ he said.

Brian Scott, who is retiring, finished 15th. He only had two finishes better than that this season. He placed second at Talladega Superspeedway in October and 12th at Auto Club Speedway in March.

Michael McDowell finished 10th Sunday. It was his fourth career top-10 finish, but this marked his first top-10 at a track other than a restrictor-plate track.

AJ Allmendinger placed eighth at Homestead, ending the season with four top-10 finishes in the final six races.

Kyle Busch’s sixth-place finish secured Toyota’s first Sprint Cup manufacturer’s title. Toyota drivers won 16 of 36 races this season.

— Homestead marked the 10th race (of 36) that went to overtime this season.

— After his Homestead victory, Jimmie Johnson has won at all but three tracks that host Cup races: Kentucky Speedway, Chicagoland Speedway and Watkins Glen International.

What drivers said after NASCAR season finale at Homestead

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Here is what drivers had to say Sunday after the 18th annual Ford EcoBoost 400, the 2016 season finale, at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Jimmie Johnson – winner and 2016 champion: “Oh my gosh, there is no, no way on earth. Just beyond words. Just didn’t think the race was unfolding for us like we needed to do to be the champs, but we just kept our heads in the game. (Crew chief) Chad (Knaus) called a great strategy, made some great adjustments for the short runs.  Luck came our way and we were able to win the race and win the championship. I wouldn’t be here without so many people believing in me and giving me this chance.  From my dirt days – my parents first and foremost. My brothers. My wife and family today. Car owners, sponsors, Chevrolet, Lowe’s, so many amazing people along the way that believed in me to give me this chance. Jeff Gordon, Rick Hendrick, all the men and women at Hendrick Motorsports for working so hard to get these cars fast and giving me an awesome 15 years with the company. Just thank you. From the bottom of my heart.  Thank you. So thrilled to be in this moment. So grateful for the opportunity and so thankful and blessed. I am at a loss for words.”

Kyle Larson – finished second: “Congrats to Jimmie (Johnson), congrats to Chevy for winning the championship, that’s pretty cool and that Jimmie could win seven there. We had the car to win there and I know that I did everything in my power to win the race. But rules are rules and I have to work in the (restart) box … Well, you are supposed to be side-by-side entering the box and he was all the way behind me. So not really anything I could do to maintain his distance behind me. But it’s whatever, I am happy for him.”

Kevin Harvick – finished third: “I’m proud of everyone on my Jimmy John’s team and every person that’s prepared my cars this year. We fought to the very end and tried to close out the season with one last win. I have to thank Jimmy John’s, Busch beer, Mobil 1, Outback, ditech, Hunt Brothers Pizza, Morton Buildings, Bad Boy Off-Road and all our great partners. I also have to say thanks to two great partners who played a major role over the course of my career: Chevrolet and Sprint. They were so good to us for such a long time, and I can’t thank them enough for their support. We finished strong, and we’ll be back in 2017 to try and make another run at a championship.”

Joey Logano – finished fourth: “It was eventful, to say the least. I hate being that close to a championship and not getting it. The team did a great job all day. We had a good race car and we put ourselves in position to win. No one made any mistakes or anything like that on our pit crew. That last restart, I was hoping to get Jimmie there and trying to get either to the inside or outside of him. I just timed it a little bit wrong to get underneath him. I just didn’t have enough time to get under him. We lost some time there and unfortunately we finish second. The championship means so much and everyone forgets about second place. That is what stinks. But overall I am proud of this team. This will be motivation for next year. This hurts.”

Kyle Busch – finished sixth: “We were just too far back. In order to make up that many spots, we were going to need more than just two laps, but we were going to be able to do it if there were more laps, but that’s the choice we made and we didn’t feel like we had a shot to win if we didn’t come down (final pit stop). So, we were going to just be fighting them off from that point. Just can’t say enough about this M&M’s team. All year long they fought hard and there were moments today where definitely it wasn’t going to be our race at all and then there were moments where it might be our race and we just weren’t able to pull through tonight.”

AJ Allmendinger – finished eighth: “Just a product of hard work. I will be honest, I was shocked by how bad we were. Dropped the green and the car wouldn’t turn and we just kind of fought that all night. This tire is a tire that we’ve definitely struggled on. Got to keep doing our homework on it. Had a pit road penalty, we fought back there and kept doing the right thing. I could see the No. 21 was the guy we were actually racing. He was having trouble, so I was just trying to be smart. Kept getting the wave around, kept getting our laps back, and missed the big wreck and hell I don’t know how we finished eighth. Good finish, we’ve definitely got to do our homework to be better and be ready for next year.”

Michael McDowell – finished 10th: “We had a great car. We made up a lot of spots in the beginning and we just sort of maintained that all day. We were running right there 16th – 20th most of the day and the strategy worked out, everything played out. Got back on the lead lap which obviously was a game changer. There at the end we got a couple of good restarts and we had a good car. We were able to close off a good season. … Well, it’s great momentum. The last 10 weeks have been great. We have run more in the top 20 than we ever have. As you do that every weekend it gets easier and easier to do it. We’ve got a busy offseason and still got to work hard and everybody is going to be trying to find extra speed come February.”

Austin Dillon – finished 12th: “We had a really good Dow-Dow Corning Chevrolet today. I’m so proud of everyone at RCR for putting together a car that was so unbelievably fast. We worked as a team and used a lot of what we learned at the Homestead-Miami test a few weeks ago. At the beginning of the race, I thought we were going to drive to the lead. The race just didn’t play to our favor at the end. I want to thank all of the partners on the No. 3 car. We’ve had a great season making the Chase for the Sprint Cup and the last few weeks have shown what we are capable of.”

Kurt Busch – finished 13th: “We really struggled on racetracks that chew up tires such as Homestead, Texas, Chicago and Fontana. We just didn’t have the long-run speed or the balance, but luck played in our favor today to take the wave around and guys we were running with in points got in that wreck to help us get back on the lead lap and to get a set of fresh tires at the end. We were able to dodge some of the cars on the restart with the damage we had. It wasn’t the Chase we wanted. We were the slowest seventh-place car in points that I’ve ever seen. We finished a spot higher in points but we didn’t have the car as good this year as we did last year. The second half of the season was a struggle. We need to revamp our notes and try to turn over a new leaf starting next year.”

Paul Menard – finished 14th: “First, I’ve got to thank my team for all the hard work they put in this year. This schedule can be tough. The Richmond/Menards Chevy wasn’t handling like we had it during practice at the beginning of the race. We were good in the shade but handling went away in the sun. Once the sun went down, we were able to make adjustments in the right direction. The long green-flag runs didn’t do us any favors as we were caught a lap down more than once. We were able to race to the free pass position, though, and started in the top 15 in the closing laps. It wasn’t the year we wanted. Luckily I have a team that doesn’t give up. We’ll regroup in the offseason and come back fresh in Daytona.”

Brian Scott – finished 15th: “We actually had a car that was capable of competing. That kept us in the race and kept us able to hang on when we took the wave around to get back on the lead lap. I thought we were gonna have a shot for a top 10, but it just didn’t play into our favor with not having a car that was very good on restarts the first couple of laps. I’m proud of my guys though for fighting all year. Even through the struggles it’s been a fun year … I’m excited. I’m not sure what the future holds, but I’m excited to find out.”

Danica Patrick – finished 19th: “Today was another reminder of why you don’t give up. We’ve had some tough races this year, but my guys have never given up. I’m so proud of everyone on the No. 10 TaxAct Chevy team for all of their hard work all season. They put in so much effort every single weekend. The tough days are character building, and they’ve definitely made us stronger as a team this year, and I know we’ll carry that strength into next season.”

Trevor Bayne – finished 20th: “That wasn’t the result we were looking for but I’m proud of my team tonight. We never gave up and fought hard tonight. I just want to thank everyone who worked on this AdvoCare team all season long. This is a great group of guys and I’m really looking forward to working with them again next season when we get to Daytona.”

Tony Stewart – finished 22nd: “I’m proud. It’s been an awesome 21 years racing in NASCAR with the Xfinity Series and the Cup Series. That is really cool to see that No. 48 (Jimmie Johnson) up there making history. Now we’ve got three guys in the seven win club. Pretty proud day, I was glad I got to race with him on the day he got his seventh … I raced, I did what I do every time I get in the car. I didn’t think of anything else other than just racing the race. We got behind there and we tried something to make ground and got caught out and had to run 60 laps on a set of tires. At the end the line-up there was, let’s say confusing. I was still screaming about that just like I would on any other race. I was true to form all the way to the end.”

Ryan Newman – finished 25th: “I hate it for the guys. Our Caterpillar Chevrolet struggled a bit today compared to Friday and Saturday, but Luke Lambert and the crew made our car better throughout the race to take an 11th-place car and put it into contention with 20 laps to go. I want to thank my Caterpillar pit crew for gaining me a bunch of spots on pit road. We gained track position after most, if not, every pit stop we made. Unfortunately, we got caught up in the big wreck. We tried to do everything we could to stay out and limp home to the finish, but our Caterpillar Chevrolet was too damaged to complete the final few laps. I want to thank everyone at RCR for a solid season and look forward to returning in 2017 to compete for another championship. ”

Ryan Blaney – finished 26th: “We just struggled tonight. I made a lot of mistakes. I made a big mistake early and we ended up getting a flat tire out of it. I just hit the wall early being impatient. That just wasn’t smart, so that’s something I need to be better at and not being so impatient. We learned a lot this year. It was a fun year and I’m just looking forward to years to come. This team does a great job. We’ll learn during the offseason and then come back.”

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. – finished 30th: “I was just trying to get all I could get there. It looked like (Austin Dillon) got underneath (Matt Kenseth) and I tried to get underneath (Dillon) and when I did he was really close to my door and it just kind of sucked me around and we got loose. It’s a bummer way to end. We were just kind of average all night. It’s a tough way to end the season, but we’ll build it and get back ready for next year.”

Ty Dillon – finished 33rd: “We were so solid all day. I’m really happy with our effort all weekend long and how much speed that we showed. We unfortunately just got caught up in that big wreck in the closing laps of the race. It stinks, because it looked like we were on our way to a top-10 finish. Matt (Borland, crew chief) called a great race and we had some really solid pit stops. The balance of the race car was pretty spot on all race and that’s credit to Matt and the guys for being prepared. I’m proud of our No. 95 Advil Chevrolet and the partial season I was able to race with this team. I’m excited for what the future holds. I’ve learned a lot this season and am appreciative of the opportunity.”

Carl Edwards – finished 34th: “Yeah, I think it was shared, you know what I mean? I think it was just racing. I haven’t seen a real close up view, but the way I had it figured is first of all that was the race of my life up to that point. That was a lot of fun and Joey (Logano) was so good on the short run. I don’t know how he got that restart. It was a really good restart. I thought we were – I thought everything was going to work out and (spotter) Jason (Hedlesky) told me he was looking low and I – he told me basically he was there. I knew what Jason was saying and I just pushed the issue as far as I could because I figured that was the race there and so here let me watch it again. Yeah, Joey just timed it perfectly, he moved down, I thought I could feel him a little and I just thought that – I was probably a little optimistic, but I thought I could clear him or force him to lift. I just thought I had just a little more time, but he drove down as far as a guy could be expected to drive down and that’s how it ended. I don’t know what the caution was for. I really hope it was something that we needed to have a caution for because that was really – that was going really well.”

Brad Keselowski – finished 35th: “It’s a product of a format that’s based on putting everything and risking everything. I don’t know. It’s not really all that surprising. It’s disappointing. I don’t think that’s great racing, but I understand why it happened on both ends.”

Martin Truex Jr. – finished 36th: “All I see is (Brad Keselowski) coming up the track and nowhere to go. This is one of those wrong place, wrong time. We got put in the back a few times. Once was our mistake early and (Kevin) Harvick’s after that. It’s unfortunate. We had a really good race car tonight and nothing to show for it. It’s two weeks in a row. Frustrating, glad this year is over and we will go and regroup and get ready for next year.”

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Jimmie Johnson earns record-tying seventh Sprint Cup championship

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Joining NASCAR Hall of Famers Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt with the most championships by a driver, Jimmie Johnson earned his record-tying seventh NASCAR Sprint Cup championship while also winning Sunday’s 2016 season-ending Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

As for the other Championship 4 drivers, Joey Logano finished fourth, 2015 champion Kyle Busch was sixth and Carl Edwards, victimized in a late wreck, wound up 34th.

Johnson, whose prior championships were in 2006 through 2010 and also 2013, led only the final three laps to become part of NASCAR history. It was also his fifth win of the 2016 season and third triumph in the last seven Chase races.

Johnson’s 80th career Sprint Cup win was also his first win in 16 starts at Homestead-Miami Speedway. The only active tracks that he has not won at drops to three: Chicago, Kentucky and Watkins Glen.

Johnson was forced to start the race from the rear of the field when his car failed to pass pre-race inspection. It was the third time in Johnson’s career that he started from the back and went on to victory. The other two times were both at Charlotte in June 2003 and October 2005.

“For some reason, I just felt good and calm today and things just kind of unfolded at the end for us, along with help from above,” Johnson told NBC Sports. “In my heart, I wanted to believe it would happen and it has.”

Runner-up Kyle Larson led the most laps (132), while 2014 champ and third-place finisher Kevin Harvick led 79 laps. The race was scheduled for 267 laps, but due to a late caution involving Ricky Stenhouse Jr., was extended into overtime for a total of 268 laps.

The rest of the top-10 of the final race of the 2016 season were Jamie McMurray (fifth), Matt Kenseth (seventh), AJ Allmendinger (eighth), Denny Hamlin (ninth) and Michael McDowell (10th).

Larson led at the midpoint (134 laps) of the scheduled 267-lap event.

MORE: Click for full results and stats.

MORE: CLick here for the final 2016 point standings.

Five years to the date, it was the second time that Edwards once again fell short of winning the championship. Edwards lost the 2011 title to Tony Stewart on a tie-breaker (Stewart had more wins than Edwards that season).

Sunday, on a restart with 10 laps to go and Edwards at the front of the field, he tried to block Logano, who did not lift off the gas pedal. The pair made contact, sending Edwards spinning and into the wall. The race was red-flagged at that point, lasting 31 minutes, 9 seconds.

“I pushed the issue as far as I could because I figured that was the race there,” Edwards told NBC Sports. “I could feel him a little, which was probably a little optimistic, but I thought I’d clear him or force him to lift. He drove down as far as a guy could be expected to drive down and that’s how it ended.”

Edwards lamented losing his second chance at a championship, adding, “Everybody did a good job and it didn’t work out. This is life. We performed well. We did our best. I just risked too much. … I had to push it. I couldn’t go to bed tonight thinking that I gave him that length.”

Kasey Kahne, Brad Keselowski, Ty Dillon, Chase Elliott, Ryan Newman, Regan Smith and Martin Truex Jr. were all collected in the Edwards-Logano wreck. Truex’s car erupted in heavy fire but he was able to get out of the car as safety crews arrived on the scene.

Two drivers made the final start of their Sprint Cup careers.

Three-time champion Tony Stewart finished 22nd in his 618th career Cup start, which also came on the fifth anniversary to the date of his final Sprint Cup championship in 2011. It was also the final race under the Chevrolet banner for the Stewart-Haas Racing organization; it switches to Ford for 2017.

Meanwhile, Brian Scott, who announced last week that he would retire after his first and full-time Cup season after six full seasons in the Nationwide Series, finished 15th.

It was also the final race after nine years with Sprint as the series entitlement sponsor. A new series sponsor, still unannounced, will assume the entitlement role for the 2017 season.

HOW JOHNSON WON: Johnson bided his time, letting the race come to him. He was in the right place at the right time when he needed to be, leading the final three laps to capture the win and championship.

WHO ELSE HAD A GOOD RACE: Kyle Larson led the most laps and looked like he might win his second career Sprint Cup race until Johnson passed him on the final restart. … Having some of their best finishes of the season were Jamie McMurray (fifth), AJ Allmendinger (eighth) and Michael McDowell (10th).

WHO HAD A BAD RACE: Carl Edwards’ second bid for a championship once again came up short, this time due to a wreck with Joey Logano with 10 laps left. … Also involved in that wreck and suffering poor finishes were Brad Keselowski (35th), Martin Truex Jr. (36th), Kasey Kahne (37th) and Regan Smith (38th).

NOTABLE: This was the first time Johnson had reached the final round of the Chase since the new format instituted in 2014. It was also 10 years and one day after Johnson earned his first Sprint Cup championship on Nov. 19, 2006, also at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

QUOTE OF THE DAY: “There is no way on Earth (that he ever thought he’d win seven Sprint Cup championships). I’m just beyond words and didn’t think the race was unfolding for us to be the champs, but we kept our heads in the game. Some luck came our way and we were able to win the race.” – 2016 Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson.

WHAT’S NEXT: The 2017 NASCAR Sprint Cup season begins on Feb. 26 with the Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway.

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