SPEEDWAY, Ind. — When Jimmie Johnson was winning his seven NASCAR Cup championships, his critics all complained about how he was just a points racer.
Some people might even say that the current NASCAR playoff system was designed to keep a guy like Johnson from winning the title.
Ironically after making every playoff format since 2004, Johnson finds himself outside of the playoff cut, sitting in 18th place in points with just one race left — today’s Brickyard 400 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Johnson will either need to win his fifth Brickyard 400 or accumulate enough points to get one of the two remaining wild-card berths.
“Of course we will be aware of the points, and of course I’ll be fed the information,’’ said Johnson during Saturday’s practice sessions. “But, we’ve only discussed how fast we’re going to be and how aggressive we’re going to be to win the race and not to have to worry about points.’’
But, winning will require Johnson to do something that he hasn’t done since June 4, 2017. The last win for the Hendrick Motorsports driver was the AAA 400 Drive for Autism race in Dover, Del.
And while it’s been 84 races since Johnson has been in Victory Lane, he is one of five drivers with four wins on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s 2.5-mile oval. Former Hendrick teammate Jeff Gordon is the only five-time winner of the Brickyard 400.
Johnson, who has won 83 races in his career, finds himself in this position because the Chevy driver hasn’t had a top-10 finish since the Daytona race on July 7th and he’s had finished 30th or worse in three of seven races leading into today’s 160-lap event.
“We’ve had plenty of bad luck, that’s for sure,” said Johnson, who would break a tie with Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt if he could win an eighth NASCAR Cup title. “That would be a heck of a story to tie Jeff with five here, to come through a drought, and all the things you want to write about and talk about, to sort of bring all that to a conclusion.”
Daniel Suarez and Indiana native Ryan Newman, are currently tied for the final wild-card spot, while Clint Bowyer is eight points ahead of Suarez and Newman and he is 26 points ahead of Johnson.
“He (Johnson) is doing everything he can do to make the playoffs and we are too, you know,” Bowyer said. “You don’t want to race guys like that. He’s one of my old heroes, good friend but now it’s all out the window here at the race track.’’
Bowyer admits is a very stressful weekend for him as it is for anyone not locked into the playoffs.
As of right now, Suarez would earn the final playoff spot based on a third-place finish at Texas earlier this season.
“The only thing I can control is myself and I have to put myself in the best position to score points and finish in the best position to make the playoff,’’ said Suarez, who it trying to become the first Mexican-born driver to make the NASCAR playoffs. “It’s a big deal because it’s the last one, there’s more pressure and to me, it’s more fun.”
The 16 spots in the NASCAR playoffs are first given to race winners, which there have been 10 this year after the victory by Erik Jones last weekend in Darlington, and after that is goes by NASCAR points.
Kyle Larson, William Byron, Ryan Blaney and Aric Almirola have wrapped up spots based on points, so that leaves the final two spots, and while it appears that Bowyer, Suarez, Newman and Johnson are the four drivers competing for the final spots, there is another group of drivers that would qualify with a win today.
Paul Menard, Chris Buescher, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Matt DiBenedetto, Austin Dillon, Ty Dillon, Daniel Hemric, Ryan Preece, Bubba Wallace, Michael McDowell and Corey Lajoie could all turn the battle for two spots into just one with a victory at Indy. Menard is the 2011 champion of the Brickyard 400 and Austin Dillon is the 2018 champion of the Daytona 500.
While the major story line in today’s Brickyard 400 will be the final two playoff spots, those 14 drivers already locked into the 10-race postseason competition are looking for more playoff points.
Kyle Busch, the regular-season champion, would have a 14-point lead over Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Denny Hamlin (2,045-2,031) if the playoffs started today. Hamlin can gain up seven playoff points today — one point for Stage 1, one point from Stage 2 and five points for the race win.
During Saturday’s practice sessions, Larson, whose crew chief is former North Vermillion standout Chad Johnston, was the fastest in the morning session, while Menard was the fastest in the afternoon session.
Hamlin’s No. 11 Toyota crashed in the final seconds of the afternoon practice session. The car, which according to Hamlin blew a tire, was engulfed in flames as it came to a stop just before pit road. Hamlin was able to escape and taken to the infield medical facility where he was cleared and released.
Qualifying for today’s Brickyard 400 is scheduled for 10:35 a.m. (Eastern). The driver introductions will be held at 1:20 p.m. (Eastern) and the race will take the green flag just at 2 p.m.
Indianapolis Motor Speedway President Doug Boles said on Thursday that ticket sales had already topped 50,000, the highest total since 2016, but there are still plenty available.
Today’s race can be seen on NBC and it can be heard locally on the IMS Radio Network, including Danville stations WRHK-FM 94.9 and WDAN-AM 1490.