Craig Murto: Johnson is best of this era

Following Sunday’s championship race at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Richard Petty called NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson the best driver of this era.

And really, there can be no doubt. In 16 seasons, Johnson has 80 wins (seventh all time) and now ties Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt with seven Cup championships. His first championship came in 2006, the beginning of an amazing five titles in a row.

But it’s not just Johnson who ranks among the top of his game. Crew chief Chad Knaus has been with Johnson his entire Cup career, so he, too, is a seven-time Cup champion. Richard Petty’s former crew chief Dale Inman has eight championships (seven with Petty and one with Terry Labonte), but those came in an era when the sport was nowhere near as competitive as it is today.

Fate seemed to be with Johnson, but it wasn’t apparent until the end of Sunday’s race. In fact, it appeared for most of the day that Johnson was the least likely to win the title.

He had to start the race last after a problem in pre-race inspection. Then, after charging toward the front of the field in the first stint, he seemed to be bogged down just outside the top five.

Things happen in racing, and they sometimes happen fast. The circumstances that led to Johnson’s eventual championship have some fans crying that the fix was in, but that’s absurd; you can’t fix a race.

In the final 50 laps, each of the four championship contenders appeared to have a chance to win.

First it was Kyle Busch, who came back from a lap down after a suspected (but undiscovered) tire issue. Then he was chased down by Carl Edwards, who of all the Chase competitors had the most consistently strong car in the race.

Was the late-race caution for Dylan Lupton’s tire issue and lazy half-spin hasty? Perhaps, but throughout the Chase the caution has been quick to fly, so NASCAR was being consistent. Where there’s smoke there often is oil or debris on the track.

The accident between Carl Edwards and Joey Logano was just hard racing. Edwards blocked, and admitted it. Logano had a run going and wasn’t going to lift immediately. A championship was on the line; both drivers did what any driver would do in their respective positions. The accident took Edwards out of the Chase. How was that fixed?

On the subsequent restart, Logano got a fantastic jump. If it hadn’t been for an accident forcing another restart, Logano appeared to have the car with the upper hand.

But on the final restart it was Jimmie Johnson who not only beat the other Chase competitors, but snagged the lead and the win from Kyle Larson, who had the dominant car the second half of the race.

It was an amazing, exciting turn of events, full of thrills and controversy. There was no fix; nothing that entertaining could be staged. It was simply Chad Knaus and Jimmie Johnson doing what they’d done six times previously; they worked through adversity, peaked at the right time, and drove away with the championship.

The Cup Series wasn’t the only NASCAR championship to be determined at Homestead. On Friday night, Johnny Sauter wrapped up the Camping World Truck series title. Starting 19th (last of the Chase contenders), he steadily drove toward the front and finished third in the race, first of the title hopefuls.

In the final four Chase races, Sauter won twice, finished second and won the title with a third. His reunion with crew chief Joe Shear Jr. is part of his success story. Shear led Sauter to an American Speed Association national title early in his career, and many feel the reason Sauter didn’t find success at Richard Childress racing is because Childress split up the Sauter/Shear team.

Saturday Daniel Suarez won the Xfinity Series race and the championship. The Mexican racer is the first foreign-born driver to win a NASCAR championship in the United States. Since NASCAR sanctions series in Mexico, Canada and Europe, to say he’s the first foreign-born NASCAR champion is not entirely accurate.

But Suarez is proof of the success of NASCAR’s diversity program, as his breaks in the U.S. came after competing in the annual diversity combine and acquiring a K&N Series ride with REV Racing. Expect Suarez to be in a Cup ride within the next three years.

Perhaps he’ll be a driver Jimmie Johnson will have to beat when he goes for an eighth championship.

Veteran motorsports columnist Craig Murto is a Linden resident.