It gained’t take a miracle for Jimmie Johnson to overlook the Monster Vitality NASCAR Cup Collection Playoffs for the primary time in his profession.
No, all it may take — doubtlessly — is a continuation of the rotten luck and spotty execution that has mired the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports staff in mediocrity over the previous 11 races.
Sunday’s Bojangles’ Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway was emblematic of Johnson’s latest struggles, to not point out a paradigm for Murphy’s Legislation. After operating fifth within the first spherical of knockout qualifying on Saturday, Johnson scraped the skin wall within the second spherical and needed to accept the 20th beginning place.
Unapproved changes to his automotive earlier than the race, nevertheless, despatched the seven-time collection champion to the rear for the opening inexperienced flag. Johnson made fast progress within the early levels of the race. On Lap 22, he handed Ryan Blaney for the 19th place.
BRICKYARD 400: TV schedule, standings, qualifying drivers
After the primary spherical of green-flag pit stops cycled out on Lap 54, Johnson was operating 14th. That’s when the night started to go horribly fallacious. On Lap 60, Johnson returned to his pit stall with a free wheel. To compound the problem, he ran too huge on the entrance to pit street and drew a pass-through penalty for a dedication line violation.
Johnson spent the remainder of his time on observe two laps down, till an oil pump failure knocked him out of the occasion after 227 of 367 laps. The ensuing 39th-place end added one level to Johnson’s whole within the collection standings, leaving him inside putting distance of teammate Alex Bowman.
Johnson left Darlington 14th in factors, 19 forward of Bowman. As a result of Daytona 500 winner Austin Dillon is locked into the Playoffs with that victory — regardless of his 18th-place place within the standings — there are solely two Playoff spots left to be settled in Sunday’s Large Machine Vodka 400 on the Brickyard (2 p.m. ET; NBCSN, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
A four-time winner at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Johnson can assure a berth within the Playoffs by scoring 37 factors or extra. If Bowman wins the race and passes Johnson within the standings, Johnson continues to be locked in.
DALE JR. BACK BEHIND THE WHEEL . . . to drive Brickyard tempo automotive
However there’s so much that may nonetheless go fallacious. Bowman gained 13 factors on Johnson at Darlington. If he beats Johnson by 20 factors or extra at Indy, that places Johnson squarely within the hazard zone. Why? As a result of 4 of the final eight winners on the Brickyard are lurking behind Johnson and Bowman within the standings, and a repeat victory by any certainly one of them would eradicate both Johnson or Bowman — assured.
In 2010, Jamie McMurray, then in a contract yr, gained the Brickyard 400 throughout his most profitable season in Cup racing. At present 21st in factors, McMurray hasn’t had the identical degree of efficiency as Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Kyle Larson, however his automobiles have the potential for pace. And with NASCAR foolish season in full swing, McMurray has each purpose to be up on the wheel.
Paul Menard, 19th in factors, gained his first and solely Cup race at Indy in 2011. That win got here out of nowhere, preceded by consecutive 24th-place runs at Kentucky and New Hampshire. Might lightning strike twice for the driving force of the No. 21 Wooden Brothers Ford?
Ryan Newman, 17th in factors, was an upset winner on the Brickyard in 2013, accumulating his solely victory of the season and certainly one of two within the final six seasons. Newman’s solely path to the Playoffs lies in successful on Sunday.
Kasey Kahne, 27th in factors, gained final yr’s race in double additional time after Johnson wrecked in a three-wide battle for the lead (with Kahne and Brad Keselowski) on the ultimate lap of regulation. Kahne was driving Hendrick tools on the time, a spot now held by Sunoco Rookie of the 12 months contender William Byron.
And that brings us to a different fascinating wrinkle. Byron is 22nd within the standings, with a win-or-bust mentality coming into the Brickyard 400. Final yr, at 19 years, 7 months and 23 days, Byron grew to become the youngest winner of a NASCAR race at Indy when he took the checkered flag within the Xfinity Collection occasion.
A breakthrough win by Byron within the Cup race would knock certainly one of his teammates out of the Playoffs. So the races inside the race on Sunday may contain Johnson vs. Bowman, or doubtlessly Johnson vs. Bowman vs. Byron.
In an actual sense, Johnson and Bowman are on an island. The 13 drivers forward of them are locked into the Playoffs and might’t be displaced. The 16th-place driver, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., can’t catch Bowman on factors from 68 behind.
The one approach both Johnson or Bowman might be “voted off” the island and out of the Playoffs is with an sudden victory by a driver behind them within the standings.
In Bowman’s case, that’s unlikely, provided that wins in 24 of the 25 races to this point have come from drivers within the prime 13 within the standings, the one exception being Dillon. In Johnson’s case, it’s a shoot-the-moon lengthy shot, provided that the seven-time champ additionally must end 20 or extra factors behind Bowman within the race.
However quirky outcomes have come on the Brickyard in 4 of the final eight years. So till the race is over and the Playoffs are set, each Bowman and Johnson could have a purpose to sweat that doesn’t have something to do with the temperature inside their Chevrolets.