Essentially before he even got a chance to contend, Jimmie Johnson was out of the winning mix at Michigan International Speedway on Sunday afternoon. Running hard and highly-motivated with the Monster Energy NASCAER Cup Series Playoffs approaching, the seven-time series champ hit the wall, blew a tire and was in the pits only 15 laps into the 200-lap race.
Already teetering on the brink of the Playoff eligibility the tough luck was obviously a big frustration to Johnson’s No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet team. But as Johnson quickly reminded fans on social media following the race, down is not necessarily out.
“My aggression early in the race led to a mistake. … this one is on me. Eyes forward and bring on Bristol," Johnson tweeted Sunday evening.
He’ll have the chance to prove that tenacity with three races remaining to set the 16-driver Playoff field. With Johnson’s gut-wrenching 34th-place finish at Michigan (his worst showing of the season), he’s now ranked 18th in the championship standings – 12 points behind Clint Bowyer in the all-important 16th and final Playoff transfer spot.
Daniel Suarez – who had a fifth-place run at Michigan – has moved ahead of Johnson and into 17th place in the standings, only six points behind the cutoff line.
There are only 22 points separating four drivers – from Ryan Newman in 15th to Johnson in 18th – to set the final two Playoff points positions.
But before anyone counts “Seven-Time” out of the 2019 Playoff run, it’s important to remember that Johnson has faced and faced down long odds before. With all his success – 83 victories and seven titles – people forget his unlikely road to NASCAR’s big leagues. Determination has served him well.
Arguably, Johnson’s whole NASCAR ascension was as unlikely as it’s been record-making. He grew up an off-road racer and championship motorcycle competitor in the Southern Californian deserts near his small working-class El Cajon hometown. His ultimate presence in NASCAR’s national series was never a given. At various points in his life, it was never even a likely option.
But after impressing some industry big wigs and earning a chance with Hendrick Motorsports, Johnson seized the opportunity and has shown himself literally the best of the best.
Even as he was winning Cup title after Cup title – including an unprecedented five consecutively from 2006-2010 - Johnson was faced with tough obstacles. An ever-changing series championship format couldn’t even stop this natural talent from winning often and ultimately tying NASCAR’s most celebrated mark of seven titles – placing him alongside legends such as NASCAR Hall of Famers Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt.
His humble background and ultimate mark of succeeding against odds is important when contemplating Johnson’s motivation and ability to persevere.
It undoubtedly serves him as he negotiates Playoff contention and the drive to end the first winless “slump” of his decorated career – 82 races. Just looking at Johnson’s marks at each NASCAR venue is a non-too-subtle reminder of his excellence.
Johnson is the only driver among that Playoff-contending quartet that has multiple wins at all three remaining tracks that will decide the Playoff field.
He has a pair of wins at this week’s stop at the iconic Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway half-miler. And he’s earned 21 top-10 finishes in 35 career starts – or an especially encouraging 60 percent of his competition there.
Johnson has 12 career top-five finishes at Bristol. His last win was in 2017 and he’s finished top-10 in eight of the last 10 races.
At the famously 'Too Tough to Tame' Darlington (S.C.) Raceway, Johnson has three victories. Again, his 12 top-10 finishes in 20 starts there equals a 60 percent top-10 success rate. He has finished among the top-five in 45 percent of his starts (nine of 20). His last Darlington win was in 2012. His last top-10 was a third place in 2014. Last year, his No. 48 Chevrolet suffered an oil pump problem and he finished 39th.
And should Johnson’s season become a “Must Win", there are few places better for that scenario than the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, site of the Sept. 8 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series regular season finale. Only NASCAR Hall of Famer and former Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon has more wins (five) than Johnson’s four at Indianapolis.
He has seven top-10 finishes in 17 starts (41 percent). He earned his four victories in a seven-year stretch between 2006-12 and topped it off with a runner-up in 2013. His last top-10 was a third-place run in 2016.
“We’re just going to have to rally on and these guys are doing an amazing job," Johnson said of his team. “We’ll keep digging."
And that you can be assured of.