Three races remain in Jimmie Johnson’s final NASCAR playoff push. The series heads to one of his favorite haunts for a weekend doubleheader.
There will more than likely be no documentary for Jimmie Johnson’s “last dance” in NASCAR. Social distancing procedures perhaps crush such a concept for the retiring Johnson before it can truly begin.
Cameras and eyes alike, however, will be attached to Johnson and his No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet over the next two weeks. With his final full-time NASCAR Cup Series tour entering its final third, the seven-time champion has three more opportunities to make one last playoff trip. Johnson is currently 25 points out of a postseason spot with three events left before the ten-race playoff begins next month.
One win would a playoff spot. Ordinarily, that wouldn’t be an issue for Johnson, whose 83 wins are tied with Cale Yarborough for fifth-most in NASCAR history. But Johnson is currently mired in the longest winless streak of his 18-year career, his last visit to victory lane coming 117 races ago.
The opportunity for a storybook ending has been set this weekend at Dover International Speedway, which hosts the final doubleheader of the Cup Series season this weekend. Not only did Dover host Johnson’s last victory back in June 2017, but Johnson is the winningest driver in the track’s history. The No. 48 has visited the Dover winner’s circle on 11 occasions. His closest competition (Richard Petty and Bobby Allison) has seven victories each.
The first of matching 311-lap races around the mile-long course, each labeled the Drydene 311, comes on Saturday late afternoon (4 p.m. ET, NBCSN). Johnson will start sixth thanks to NASCAR’s new starting lineup formula which eschews the random draw for an equation that factors in standings position and performance/speed in the prior event.
“I love the track, obviously. I’m very optimistic about how we’re going to run,” Johnson said of the upcoming doubleheader in Delaware on Friday morning. ” I never wanted to have a winless drought or have a winless season. But I’ve worked through so many of those emotions over the last couple of years and also understand that there are factors that I can’t control that have affected my performance.”
Dover is one of several tracks on the circuit that hosts two Cup Series events (this pair customarily runs for 400 laps/miles). The second race, and often held in the thick of the playoffs, has served as an energizer for Johnson’s championships. Johnson reflected on his successful visits during his Friday availability.
Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, it wasn’t a championship-preceding win that Johnson looks upon the most fondly. He instead flashed back to his rookie season of 2002.
Johnson had won the first race at the so-called “Monster Mile” in the spring (the second win of his career). He kept the relative consistency going, but a return trip to victory lane proved elusive. That changed at Dover’s MBNA All-American Heroes 400, where a historic push to the top began. Starting 19th, Johnson made it to the lead by lap 204 of 400 and went on to lead a race-high 170 laps. He held off Mark Martin overall a final stretch of 72 green-flag circuits to become the first rookie in series history to win two races at one track during their debut.
One week later, a top ten finish at Kansas allowed Johnson to become the yellow-striper in NASCAR history to lead the Cup Series’ points standings. He eventually finished fifth in the final rankings, but Johnson’s march to greatness had officially begun.
“A pattern that developed after my rookie year in how I grew to count on that fall Dover race to really give our team the shot in the arm by winning and running well,” Johnson explained. “When I look back, I can of smile now and I had no idea the foreshadowing of that year, of that track and what that would mean. So, I kind of look back to that.”
In this final stand, Johnson enters fighting for his playoff life. Last season’s playoffs were the first to not include the No. 48 on the bracket and he’d certainly like a chance to go out on top and earn a record-breaking eighth Cup Series title. Everyone at Hendrick Motorsports is pulling out all the stops to ensure that Johnson can join his teammates Chase Elliott and Alex Bowman in the playoffs. Even his primary sponsor, Ally Bank, opted to ditch their normal, darker shades and give Johnson a brighter paint scheme for the final four races of the regular season. This rebranded, brighter Chevrolet finished fourth in its debut race at Daytona International Speedway’s road course event won by Elliott last weekend.
But in a twist conjured by perhaps the most poetic of racing gods, Johnson’s main competition for the final playoff spot involves friends turned (hopefully only temporary) foes behind the wheel and atop the pit box.
The 16th and final Cup Series playoff seed is currently held by William Byron and the No. 24 Chevrolet. It was that vehicle’s most famous occupant, NASCAR Hall of Famer Jeff Gordon, that discovered Johnson during the latter’s endeavors on the NASCAR Busch (now Xfinity) Series at the turn of the century. Gordon has even been listed as a part-owner of the No. 48 and the two staged some classic battles on the track. The modern No. 24’s endeavors are overseen by Chad Knaus…Johnson’s former crew chief and partner for 81 of his Cup Series victories and all seven of his championships.
Johnson admitted the process of seeing such familiar, friendly sights, both human and vehicle, as fiery competition, will be “odd” going into the crucial doubleheader.
“It’s odd. It’s unfortunate, as well. But it’s the situation that we’re in. With Chad on the box there, you just think of the layers of how it’s odd and we’re all fighting for that last spot in the playoffs,” Johnson said. “William is a great student. He’s really increased his game at Dover, so I don’t think it’s going to be easy to get points on him or especially a lot of points on him. For all of us out there, Dover is a track where you can get caught up in stuff and have a lot of cars affected.”
“The one caveat to that is the driver I’m focused on has Chad Knaus on the box, and he’s a student, friend, somebody I’ve mentored and kind of taught how to drive good there and be competitive there. So, it is a very unique situation to be in and I wish it wasn’t a Hendrick teammate that I was fighting for that last spot with.”
The regular season finale will take place at Daytona’s more traditional oval next weekend. Johnson’s Daytona finishes have been relatively decent, but the track can be a wild source of unpredictability as a place for drivers outside of the top 16 in points to swipe away postseason capital. It makes the final waltzes at Dover all the more crucial.
A victory and playoff berth would certainly provide some levity to Johnson’s final year, which has been defined by the unpredictable. Johnson was fifth in the standings after the fourth race of the season in Phoenix. The sport’s return from the coronavirus induced pause has been one of bad luck for Johnson, who was once described by competitor Kevin Harvick as “(having) a golden horseshoe stuck up (his rear end)” after a comeback victory at Fontana in 2010 (the first of six victories en route to his fifth title in a row).
Johnson was set to win the opening stage in the first race back at Darlington but crashed on the penultimate lap of the frame. A runner-up finish at the famous Coca-Cola 600 two races later was wiped out by failed inspection. Incidents beyond his control, like an unintentional bump from Harvick as the two fought for a win at Talladega, have ruined otherwise strong showings. All of these calamities failed to take into account the fact that Johnson missed last month’s Big Machine Hand Sanitizer 400 at Indianapolis after he became the first driver to test positive for coronavirus. The calamities, which have cost Johnson a chance to bid farewell to the fans at NASCAR’s national venues, having done nothing to convince Johnson to stay for one more year, though he does plan new racing endeavors in sports cars and the IndyCar circuit (and possibly select NASCAR races).
Johnson, however, isn’t looking toward the future, at least not immediately. The past is in the past, whether it’s the positives of the championships or the more recent negatives, like the positive COVID-19 test that cost him an unknown number of points at Indianapolis. Johnson isn’t pinning a potential playoff miss on the protocols, saying that the “bed has been made”. He’s not even sure if he’ll ever really know if his test was a false positive.
But whatever opportunities NASCAR has left, Johnson is ready to embrace them head-on, providing a rare, reliable custom in this season full of surprises.
“With time running out, I feel like something that does help me is that this isn’t a hard stop for me in motorsports and I know there are wins still out there for me,” He said. “That’s just the glass is half full point of view that I have and I guess maybe the way I manage some of the disappointment over the last few years, but I need to make the most out of each opportunity that I have ahead of myself.
“I will certainly do that.”
Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags