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

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