NASCAR & Auto Racing

Consider the unthinkable: 7-time champion Jimmie Johnson could miss NASCAR’s playoffs

Jimmie Johnson appreciates the enthusiasm of his younger teammates

Johnson is suddenly the senior statesman of the Hendrick team
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Johnson is suddenly the senior statesman of the Hendrick team

This question might be considered heresy in the NASCAR industry, but statistics say it’s worth asking:

Is it possible that Jimmie Johnson — yes, the seven-time Cup Series champion and certified racing legend — really misses the NASCAR playoffs this year?

For starters, that’s never happened. Every year since he became a full-time driver in 2002, Johnson has had some place in the NASCAR postseason. Whether that’s as a championship contender or fringe entrant has fluctuated yearly, especially lately, but his inclusion never faltered.

Until now.

Johnson sits 17th in the Cup Series points standings, just outside the playoff bubble. He’s been around the cutoff line most of this season, and that doesn’t figure to change soon. While Hendrick Motorsports was seemingly experiencing a revival in May, that momentum has faded significantly since the Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte. Johnson has just one Top-5 finish all year, and he’s finished outside the Top 10 in the past three races.

Which brings us back to the all-too-real possibility that this is finally the year he misses the playoffs.

That of course would be a tremendous milestone for Johnson and NASCAR, and not in a good way. Johnson is one of the more respected drivers in the garage, and not just because of his storied career. He’s ultra-competitive, but he also carries himself with class and patience. His following is strong, and expansive, and for NASCAR as a whole, critical.

Really, Johnson represents NASCAR’s last era of greatness. He was teammates with Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr., competed against Tony Stewart, Matt Kenseth and Danica Patrick, and his stretch of five consecutive championships defined racing in the 2000s. Now, all his counterparts have retired and we’re about to begin the 2020s. Heck, Johnson’s current teammates are all in their 20s.

None of that is to say that Johnson has outlived his usefulness in NASCAR. Again, he’s the most successful driver in the garage still and it’s not particularly close. The difficult part is squaring his incredible legacy with his current situation, which is ... much less incredible.

None of the three drivers immediately in front of Johnson in the standings — William Byron in 14th, Kyle Larson in 15th, and Ryan Newman in 16th — have half the resume he does. Expect those four, along with Erik Jones (currently 18th) to continue jockeying for position over the next 10 races. Unfortunately, there’s no Martinsville or Dover over that stretch where Johnson can really flex his muscle.

This point could very easily become moot with one win — after all, that’s what it takes to qualify for the NASCAR playoffs today. But Johnson hasn’t won in more than two years now (Dover, June 2017). Since joining the Observer in late August of 2017, I’ve never covered a Jimmie Johnson Cup victory.

Johnson’s legacy won’t change whether he makes or misses the playoffs this year. He’s entrenched as an all-time legend and one of the winningest drivers to ever get behind the wheel. But Johnson missing out on the postseason would serve as a marker of sorts for NASCAR, a sign that one of racing’s great eras is finally coming to a close.

Again, that’s if Johnson misses out — there’s still plenty of season to go before then.

Brendan Marks: (704) 358-5889; @brendanrmarks

This week’s NASCAR race at Chicagoland: What you need to know.

Race: Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Camping World 400.

Distance: 267 laps, or 400.5 miles.

Where: Chicagoland Speedway, a 1.5-mile asphalt tri-oval in Joliet, Ill.

When: 3 p.m. Sunday.

TV: NBCSN.

Radio: MRN.

Last year’s winner: Kyle Busch.

Also this week: Camping World 300, Xfinity Series, Chicagoland Speedway, 3:30 p.m., Saturday, NBCSN.

Worth mentioning: This is the first race of the year for NBC’s broadcasting group, which will pick up for Fox over the remainder of the season.

Who’s Hot/Who’s Not

HOT

Martin Truex Jr.: A fourth win in eight weeks means he’s already tied his wins total from last season... with 20 races to go.

Matt DiBenedetto: A career-high fourth last week is exactly the sort of reward he deserves for all his growth this year.

NOT

Joey Logano: He’s still atop the points standings, but a 23rd-place finish at Sonoma didn’t do anything to help him keep momentum.

Brad Keselowski: There’s no questioning Keselowski is a championship contender, but 18th at Sonoma almost overwhelms his back-to-back Top 10s.

Brendan Marks is a general assignment sports reporter for the Charlotte Observer covering the Carolina Panthers, Charlotte Hornets, NASCAR and more. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and has worked for the Observer since August 2017.

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