NASCAR Playoffs: Is Jimmie Johnson a Championship Contender?

With playoffs in sight, Jimmie Johnson is set to chase a record eighth Championship title.

With playoffs in sight, Jimmie Johnson is set to chase a record eighth Championship title.

One week before the NASCAR playoffs begin, and the whispers have intensified, “Will the real Jimmie Johnson reemerge in time to capture the Cup?”  While the seven-time NASCAR Monster Energy Cup champion won three races in quick succession earlier this year, Johnson’s customary summer swoon has been in full effect.

Since his last victory in June at Dover Speedway, Johnson’s best result is a 10th place finish at both Michigan and New Hampshire.

Vegas oddsmakers still respect Johnson’s championship prowess, favoring the Team Lowe’s Racing driver to make the Championship four finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, along with Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch, and Kyle Larson.

Uninspiringly, Johnson is a paltry 10th in the current regular season point standings, having managed only three top 5 finishes, all wins from earlier in the year.

Still, Johnson has embarrassed his doubters before, those who unwisely dismiss Team Lowe’s Racing chances for capturing the Cup trophy yet again.

The prevailing wisdom is that Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus rely on the regular season to tune up and refine their best car equipment for the Championship run.  Once the playoffs commence, Team Lowe’s Racing will simply “flip the switch” to transform into playoff shape.

Johnson last win was in June at Dover, a track where he has dominated with 11 career victories.

Johnson’s last win was in June at Dover, a track where he has dominated with 11 career victories.

Additionally, the prevalent blend of intermediate speedways in the ten-race playoff stretch are right in Johnson’s and Knaus’ wheelhouse of performance expertise, the type of tracks where Johnson has captured over one-half of his 83 career wins.

Yet, there is a novel “X factor” that Johnson must contend with in this year’s playoff.  Certainly, Johnson knows how to win on the circuits in the playoffs.  However, Johnson has yet to master the unique stage racing format introduced this season that awards bonus points for performance within three race segments, which may prove crucial to moving through this year’s playoff eliminations.

To capture provisional stage wins, drivers must qualify well to maximize their opportunity to run up front early and score the cherished extra bonus points.  Currently, Johnson has only one stage win this year, while playoff contenders Truex Jr and Kyle Busch have 17 and 10 wins, respectively.

Uncharacteristically, Johnson has genuinely struggled to qualify well this year, as revealed when comparing this year’s performance with his seven previous Championship seasons:

  • During his Championship runs, Johnson’s average qualifying spot was 9.8. Conversely, in 2017, Johnson has lacked speed, with an average starting position of 17.3.
  • In four of his previous Championship seasons, Johnson ranked 1st in season laps led, and never outside the top six in the other three seasons. This year, Johnson ranks a pedestrian 10th in laps led, and hasn’t led a lap since Daytona in July.
  • More concerning is Johnson’s 2017 average finish of 17.0, evidence that the Hendrick Motorsports #48 is not progressing up through the field in most races, which has classically been a perennial strength of Johnson’s prior Championship runs.

There is little question that the entire Hendrick Motorsports stable has lacked speed, as all four drivers (including Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr, Chase Elliott, and Kasey Kahne) have struggled to run up front this year.  While Elliott leads the Hendrick organization with an average finish of 13.7, Kahne and Earnhardt Jr are both edgy, with average finishes that fall outside the top 20.

Crew Chief Knaus acknowledges that the Lowe's team must improve its qualifying results in the playoffs.

Crew Chief Knaus acknowledges that the Lowe’s team must improve its qualifying results in the playoffs.

It is possible that the loss of Hendrick Motorsports’ former Chevy “alliance” partner, Stewart-Haas Racing, (which switched to Ford powerplants for 2017) has impacted the robust data set that the Hendrick organization could draw upon to improve on-track performance.

Additionally, the front-running teams of Joe Gibbs Racing and Furniture Row Racing have capitalized on the new Toyota Camry to generate more speed over the season, while Hendrick Motorsports’ outdated Chevrolet SS platform originally introduced in 2013 will be replaced by the Camaro ZL1 for 2018.

Recently, Johnson was quizzed about where he currently stands under NASCAR’s new point system.  Johnson candidly replied that he had “no idea”, and that he just seeks to go hard every time he straps in the car and deliver the best result with the equipment provided.

Of course, no driver wins every time they strap into the car.  Racing streaks come in waves, in a sport that depends on the synergistic connection of car, crew and driver all coming together.  Race teams in the garage are always looking to improve this combination, and that’s called competition.

In the past, Johnson has habitually made it look almost too easy in securing Championships through dominant playoff runs, displaying a cool, confident demeanor that sometimes does not resonate with the old school stalwarts in NASCAR’s fan base.

This year, should Johnson overcome the hurdles of a new playoff format and an underperforming car to secure a record eighth Championship, he surely should be revered by fans for his grit and tenacity, as Johnson will undeniably stand atop NASCAR’s Championship pinnacle.

By Ron Bottano

Give your take: Will Jimmie Johnson make it to the Championship 4 Final Round? Take our Twitter poll at @rbottano

Again, Late-Race Events Determine The Outcome

Just to offer a few musings after the FedEx 400 at Dover International Speedway.

** As boring as a race may appear, even when it has gone well past its halfway point and you’re thinking about beating the traffic, it’s always good to stick around.

The odds are favorable things will change, often dramatically.

I don’t know why it is but many times a race’s character will change as it winds down to is conclusion. Perhaps a dominant driver suffers a mechanical malady and drops out, which thus leaves victory a wide-open issue.

Or, and this happens most often, a race devoid of caution flags suddenly experiences a rash of them during the closing laps. As you know, anything can happen during pit stops and all it takes is one slip by a once-overpowering driver’s team to lose several positions.

Or even the driver himself. How often is speeding on or off pit road dumped a good day into the ash can?

It doesn’t have to be a rash of cautions. Just one or two will suffice. At race’s end they dictate strategy. For example, will a pit stop consist of a four or two-tire change? Or will a driver stop at all?

The right decision could be rewarded with vital track position and a shot at victory. The wrong call can take a contender right out of the picture.

Which is what happened at Dover.

The day belonged to Jimmie Johnson – or perhaps Carl Edwards. The two dominated the race and swapped the lead throughout. Johnson, the five-time Sprint Cup champ, led 207 laps, high for the race. Edwards led 117 laps.

But any kind of sashaying Johnson and Edwards might have done to the checkered flag came to an end on lap 362 of 400 when the race’s sixth caution period was created by Juan Pablo Montoya’s spin.

Clint Bowyer, Johnson and Edwards led the parade down pit road, accompanied by Matt Kenseth, who had been, throughout the race, lurking and seemingly biding his time – typical Kenseth.

Crew chiefs had a few choices to make on what would likely be the last stop of race.

They could sacrifice track position and take on four tires. The question was, with about 32 laps left to the end of the race from the restart, would that be enough for the fresh rubber to produce?

They could take on right-side tires only, which granted track position but might result in failure as the older tires gave way to rivals’ new.

Or they could take no tires at all. Talk about track position. But so what? How could that last for a car that had worn tires?

There’s the old adage that states a driver loves track position and clean air more than his mother. Because his Hendrick Motorsports team kept him out on the track, Martin got both as the leader when the race restarted.

Kenseth, with two new tires only, was second and soon passed Martin to lead the final 32 circuits and capture his second victory of the season.

Meanwhile, Johnson and Edwards got four tires during their stops and spent the rest of the rest fighting to stay in the top 10. Edwards was ninth on the restart, Johnson 11th. Bowyer, by the way, was eighth.

Edwards finished seventh, Johnson ninth.

While a four-tire change is usually – but definitely not always – the most popular strategy during late-race pit stops, Kenseth admitted he made a change in plans.

“In the back of my head I was thinking I should almost drive by pit road and restart in front and see what happens,” Kenseth said. “I looked to my mirror and saw everybody on the apron and I thought it wouldn’t be good for me if I did that and restarted and finished about 15th.

“We came down pit road and as I slid into the stall I keyed the mic and said, ‘Jimmy (Fenning, crew chief), are you sure you don’t want to try two?’ He didn’t hesitate and said, ‘two tires, two tires’ and it was in plenty of time. It was no problem and it went smooth almost like we planned it.”

“After we took four tires, there were so many guys in front of us when we left pit road I knew we were in trouble,” Johnson said.

Of course, it’s natural to wonder what the outcome of the race would have been if Johnson and Edwards had taken on only two tires.

But given that different late-race strategies were again played out, as they have been so many times in the past, we’ll never know.

As for Kenseth, who stands sixth in points, his second win of the year has put him in an excellent position to make the Chase as, at the least, a wildcard selection.

 

** Give Martin and his Hendrick team credit for their strategy. To stay on the track gave them the lead on the restart and, yes, they lost it.

But that’s all they gave up. Despite the fact they had old tires and many behind them had fresh rubber, not another position was lost. Martin finish second to record his first top-five finish in what has been a lean season.

Martin has only four top-10 finishes in 11 races during his last season with Hendrick. He hangs on to 11th in points and thus is still in the hunt for a position in the Chase.

“We ran very well, again, today,” Martin said. “And this time at least we didn’t finish 15th.”

When as what it is going to take for him to win a race, Martin said, “We’re going to have to go faster.”

Which gets right to the point, doesn’t it?

 

** There were several feel-good finishes among the top 10 at Dover, but perhaps most prominent among them were third by Marcos Ambrose and fifth by Brian Vickers.

Ambrose is a national hero in Australian motorsports and has gained a lot of admiration for his efforts in NASCAR. His third-place run solidifies the belief that he’s due to win on an oval track.

Which is exactly what he wants to do. He does not want to be known as a road-racer. He wants to be known as a successful NASCAR driver – and there’s only one sure way to accomplish that.

This time last year, Vickers was in the hospital suffering from blood clots. His future as a driver was in doubt.

Now, of course, he has returned to Red Bull Racing and his fifth-place performance at Dover was his best of the season so far.

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