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Ryan: Life in the Danica Patrick shadow never has bothered Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

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Sometimes, even Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s girlfriend seems more miffed than he is about the frequent overshadowing for the permanently less renowned half of racing’s most highly publicized couple.

Leaving a restaurant in New Hampshire after a rare joint interview in July 2013, a worker wished Patrick good luck for the weekend.

“You know Ricky’s racing Sunday, too,” she bristled with a steely glare. “You can root for him, too!”

Stenhouse just smiled and clutched Patrick a little more closely as they walked away.

It always has been how he nonchalantly and non-combatively handles the dynamics of a relationship fraught with the stress of disproportionate celebrity.

“I don’t mind being known as her boyfriend,” Stenhouse said Sunday after the first win of his Cup career. “She doesn’t mind being known as my girlfriend. It goes either way, and we couldn’t be in a better place right now.”

Though Patrick’s incomparable media savvy automatically receives credit as she is the unrelenting focus of the pair, Stenhouse’s win at Talladega reinforced the overlooked reasons his demeanor is as important to the bedrock of their bond.

He is the archetype of the strong, silent type from the not-quite Deep South (yes, he hails from Mississippi but his hometown is a half-day’s drive from the Gulf Shores).

He comes off as self-assured, uncomplicated and completely secure in his ability and his lot in life – which would seem to be necessary attributes for dating the most famous woman in the history of auto racing.

Patrick is equally strong-willed but naturally much more visible than her boyfriend.

Besides the inherent attention from being the first woman to lead either the Indianapolis 500 or Daytona 500, Patrick also thrusts herself into the limelight by hawking “athleisure” (via her Warrior clothing line), healthy food (a cooking show seems a given for the former winner of a Chopped celebrity edition) and life coaching (her how-to book “Pretty Intense” is coming in January).

It would seem understandable (perhaps even expected by many) for some measure of resentment to manifest itself for Stenhouse.

Yet the 29-year-old with the perennial smile and spate of facial hair (sometimes a goatee, sometimes a Jeff Gordon-esque pencil moustache) always seems nonplussed by questions about the incessant attention foisted upon his girlfriend and whether it defines him.

It might be impossible to explain in full how they make such a high-profile relationship work, but Patrick and Stenhouse deserve immense respect for deftly navigating (at least outwardly) the logistics, politics and pressures of mixing business with pleasure on a national stage.

There is a certain yin and yang to the relationship with Stenhouse’s affinity for dirt bikes and down-home sensibility balancing Patrick’s taste for Michigan Avenue sophistication and societal transcendence.

“I’m just so, so proud of him,” Patrick told reporters in victory lane. “He works his butt off. He works harder than any driver I know. He works tirelessly.”

This is what often gets missed in the glamour shots of a tuxedo-clad Stenhouse (avec mullet) accompanying Patrick to various red-carpet events.

There rarely is visual evidence of the crack-of-dawn wakeup calls necessary for Stenhouse to build unity within the No. 17 Ford team.

“Ricky has had ample opportunity to mail it in, yet he’s at the shop at 6:30 a.m. working with the guys on occasion,” Roush Fenway Racing president Steve Newmark said. “He has really taken that leadership mantle.”

It’s a vestige of the 2010 season when Stenhouse was demoted to grunt work by team owner Jack Roush for several weeks after too many Xfinity Series crashes.

He responded by winning the next two series championships and earning a ticket to Cup at the time the relationship with Patrick became public.

“She supports me through anything I need to do, whether it’s spend more time at the shop, whether it’s we need to fly somewhere a little bit later because I need to spend a little bit more time with the guys at the shop or want to go to dirt races or anything like that,” he said. “She knows how hard that I’ve worked. She understands that I’m going to go to the shop a lot, and to have that support and her knowing where I’m coming from is great to have. “

That blue-collar work ethic might be most telling in explaining what does seem to grate on Stenhouse – a lack of recognition for the quiet breakthrough season he was enjoying before Sunday’s exclamation point at Talladega.

Though the expiration date is fast approaching to be considered part of NASCAR’s youth movement (Stenhouse turns 30 in October), there has been scant regard paid to his backstory (beyond Danica, of course) as the 2017 hype machine breathlessly kicked into gear to spin the yarns of Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney and Kyle Larson.

How many knew that Talladega was the closest approximation of a hometown track for Stenhouse (a native of Olive Branch, Mississippi)?

How many know the full story of how this kid from a suburb of Memphis (not exactly a USAC hotbed) became an open-wheel star?

Maybe now the perceptions will change even as Stenhouse’s actions remain constant.

As well-documented as Larson’s rise has been, Stenhouse’s isn’t much different. He didn’t bring wheelbarrows full of cash to reach NASCAR. It’s more of an untold Cinderella story.

Tony Stewart (who calls Stenhouse “son”) plucked him from the obscurity of driving dirt (in his father’s sprint cars), and Jack Roush (with Smoke’s blessing) then gave him a chance in stock cars.

There is no question that Roush and Stewart saw prodigious talent and raw speed in Stenhouse.

Perhaps they also saw an innate quality for managing the spotlight – while hardly worrying about being outside its glare.

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He is Talladega’s 11th first-time winner in Cup, but Stenhouse’s victory on the 2.66-mile oval wasn’t as capricious as others in the past (hello, Bobby Hillin Jr.).

Aside from a crash in the Daytona 500 and a lost weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Stenhouse consistently has been a top-10 performer.

If not for a late mistake at Atlanta Motor Speedway (where he qualified fourth and was headed for a top five) and subpar pit stops at Auto Club Speedway (where he lost more spots in the pits than he gained on track), Stenhouse might be ranked top 10 in points heading to Saturday night’s race at Kansas Speedway – a 1.5-mile track that is in the playoffs and a good benchmark for title contenders.

“My confidence has been really high all year,” he said. “We know what racetracks we need to work on. I think Kansas will be a good test for us. … We’re continuing to strive to make our cars better, and I feel confident that guys back at the shop, (crew chief) Brian (Pattie) and everyone, there’s not many teams that pay attention to the details I feel like that the 17 team does.”

The influence of Pattie could play a key role in ensuring Roush Fenway Racing avoids a repeat of a precipitous decline in results last summer. As a crew chief for Juan Pablo Montoya in 2009, Pattie showed he knew how to leverage consistency to championship contention.

It might sound boring or clichéd in its simplicity but acknowledging the monotony of a title run also can be its foundation.

“Just focus, focus one week at a time, execute, and after the checkered flag falls on a Sunday, we’ll regroup on Monday and start over,” Pattie said Sunday. “Just try and not get ahead of ourselves.  That’s just the biggest part.  Obviously we’ve got better people and better spots and the cars are faster.  That helps tremendously.”

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Talladega seemed more like a traffic jam than normal Sunday. Per usual, cars were lined up three abreast and 10 rows deep for much of the race.

What was unusual this time was how difficult it was to go anywhere.

“I thought it was super hard to pass,” said runner-up Jamie McMurray, whose sublime aggression in the pack was more magnified because so many others were struggling with advancement. “I don’t know how everybody else felt. Until the tires wore out and the cars started sliding around, it was just three wide, and there really wasn’t anywhere to go.  I actually raced in about 30th for quite a bit of the race because there (were) no holes.”

Dale Earnhardt Jr., who has struggled on plate tracks since last year after finishing third or better in all four races in 2015, said some tweaks to the engine have left cars stalling out.

“We just kind of get stuck side by side too easy so it’s harder to make passes,” he said. “It changed the way the draft worked and I really haven’t liked it as well.

“It took a lot of the speed out of the cars as far as they create runs and maintain runs and how you put tougher passes and do things on the track. Now everybody is stuck side by side. If you not in the first or second row, you’re really just kind of riding behind the guys nowhere to go. Because the cars don’t create the runs like they used to.”

Nearly half the top 10 finishers at Talladega also started in the top 10 (a number that might have been higher without the massive pileup with 20 to go). Qualifying tends to mean little at plate tracks, but as the opener in the second round of the playoffs in October, it would seem to behoove teams to focus on starting up front – or developing creative strategies to get there — if Sunday is a harbinger.

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When two storied teams break triple-digit winless streaks in NASCAR’s premier series, it makes a strong case for legitimate parity so far this season.

The downturn for Joe Gibbs Racing certainly has contributed to the diversity of eight winners in 10 races. But Richard Childress Racing and Roush Fenway Racing also have put themselves in position more often to end their skids.

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Talladega’s 80,000-seat grandstands were much closer to capacity than Richmond’s 60,000-seat venue last week, prompting some Twitter grumbling among the NASCAR industry about why the media focus on empty instead of full.

Yeah! Darn media narratives! So let’s just compare the 2017 crowd to … oh, wait.

Tracks don’t provide attendance figures. Pity.

If you want to highlight the positive stories, then provide the numbers that help tell them.

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Twice in the past seven races, Kyle Busch was leading when the final caution flag flew, and in another race, he had the strongest car until the final stage.

Will his fortunes change at Kansas, where he enters as the defending race winner and with four consecutive top fives at the 1.5-mile oval?

Hard to say. But you can count on at least one person to keep picking Busch until the No. 18 wins.

Dustin Long contributed to this report from Talladega.

A long time coming: Kurt Busch earns best finish since Daytona 500 win

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With a win in the Daytona 500, the 2017 Cup season couldn’t have started out better for Kurt Busch.

But since, it’s been a struggle much of the time for the 2004 Cup champion.

The Daytona win qualified him for the playoffs, but he exited after the first round.

Along the way, he managed just four other top-five finishes, had seven DNFs (six crashes, one engine issue) and has endured a mediocre 16.2 average finish per race.

But much of that was forgotten – at least for a little while – after Busch’s runner-up finish in Sunday’s Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway, his best showing since his Daytona 500 win.

“I really wanted that one bad,” Busch told NBCSN. “I don’t know what it is about this place. I feel like I’m on pins and needles most of the day. (Crew chief Tony) Gibson always throws nice adjustments at it and the race comes to us and we’re right there. We had a shot at winning. When we get it right, we’re right there.”

Later, the driver of the No. 41 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford Fusion praised Gibson further, although he didn’t exactly feel that way after Saturday’s qualifying.

“All in all, Tony Gibson deserves this second‑place finish,” Busch said. “He got on me pretty hard on Saturday morning after qualifying (15th). He said, You know, we got a brake problem. I said, ‘What do you mean?’

“He goes, ‘You didn’t use brake, that’s why we didn’t run good in run two and run three.’ I’m like, ‘Man, I never use brake in qualifying.’ So he actually really pissed me off. I spent the whole race pretty agitated. At the end, I made sure I used brake and brought it home in second.”

While his championship hopes were dashed at the end of the Round of 16, Busch hopes to build momentum for the remaining four races.

Yeah, it was nice to have things unfold in our favor today, even though I brushed the wall and got us a lap down early,” Busch said. “The mentality that I’ve been trying to accept right now is run for 10th, try not to push the car too hard. Anything above 10th is icing on the cake.”

One thing that helped Busch’s finish was using sticker tires instead of scuffs late in the race. That allowed him to close on race winner Martin Truex Jr., even though Busch still came up over two seconds short at the start-finish line.

“It’s a matter of just keeping track of the adjustments throughout the race, making sure that we use every set of sticker tires that we possibly can and get the most out of sticker tires,” he said. “When we have scuffs, we struggle. We’re a 15th place car on scuffs.”

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Long: Tears turn to cheers for Furniture Row Racing

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KANSAS CITY, Kansas — Among his final acts alive, James “Jim” Watson texted his wife Saturday night and told her what a great time he was having with his Furniture Row Racing teammates at a local go-kart track.

Soon after, the 55-year-old father suffered a fatal heart attack.

“I take a little bit of solace in that he was happy in his last moments,’’ said a misty-eyed Cole Pearn after Martin Truex Jr. rallied to win Sunday’s Cup race at Kansas Speedway.

Pearn was on the way to the hospital Saturday night when he was told Watson died. The team later gathered at their hotel to grieve.

“We just all looked at each other and shed some tears and some hugs,’’ Pearn told NBC Sports.

No Cup team has faced so much personal adversity in such a public way this year as Furniture Row Racing. Its greatest season on the track has been offset by tragedy and tribulation.

Truex’s longtime girlfriend, Sherry Pollex, had surgery in July for a recurrence of cancer. She was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in August 2014 and announced she was cancer-free in January 2016. Her ovarian cancer returned this summer. Truex won at Kentucky Speedway and brought her home from the hospital the next day. Her chemo treatments continue.

After the Kentucky race, Pearn’s closest childhood friend suddenly died after he caught a bacterial infection from a cut. Truex won that weekend at Watkins Glen to cap what Pearn called then “the hardest week of my life.’’

After Truex won at Charlotte two weeks ago, Pearn said “my wife and I put our dog down … that we’ve had for 13 years.

“It’s just like, man, I don’t know if regular life is supposed to be like this.’’

Then came Saturday night.

Watson had been with the team since February, joining as a fabricator, who worked on both the cars of Truex and Erik Jones. Watson was a longtime racer from Wisconsin.

“James was a friend to everybody,’’ said Joe Garone, president of Furniture Row Racing. “It’s hard to talk about.’’

Truex said both teams helped each other work through the pain while preparing for the race Sunday morning. Truex’s seventh victory of the season continued his dominance and is the most wins by a Cup driver in a season since Matt Kenseth won seven races in 2013.

Pearn called it “kind of overwhelming” to see Truex cross under the checkered flag ahead of the field less than 24 hours after Watson’s death. 

“I was doing OK and then I started seeing the faces on other guys,’’ Pearn told NBC Sports. “It just hits you like a ton of bricks.’’

When Truex won in the past, it had just been the No. 78 crew that gathered in Victory Lane. Sunday, the No. 77 crew also joined Truex’s team to celebrate a win and a life.

“Chris (Gayle) and I came to it … that if either one of us were fortunate enough to win, we’d both go to Victory Lane because Jim worked on both of our cars and was a part of both of our teams,’’ Pearn said of the crew chief for the No. 77 team.

It proved a fitting honor for Watson.

“He always wanted when we won to celebrate as a group,’’ Pearn said. “I just couldn’t think of any better way to pay tribute to him and know that he would have been happy with that call.’’

Tough night but the result was some solace we all needed. So proud of the team. For you Wildman RIP

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What Drivers Said after Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas

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Martin Truex Jr. continues to be the most dominant – and winning – driver of the 2017 NASCAR Cup season and playoffs.

Truex’s win in Sunday’s Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway was his third in the first six playoff races and his series-leading seventh win of 2017 – six which have come on 1.5-mile racetracks.

Now the playoffs advance to the Round of 8 semifinal round. Kyle Busch is second in the points, 27 points behind Truex, and Brad Keselowski is third, 43 points back.

Four drivers were eliminated from advancing to the next round: Matt Kenseth, Kyle Larson, Jamie McMurray and Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

All of them, as well as many other drivers, had a lot to say about Sunday’s race:

Martin Truex Jr. – Winner: “Definitely racing with heavy hearts today with losing Jim (team member Jim Watson, who passed away Saturday night from a heart attack) last night. Want to send our condolences to his family and all of his friends. He was a heck of a guy and a great worker and put a lot of speed in these Furniture Row Toyotas, so glad we could get him one here. Excited to get another one here at Kansas. This feels really awesome. It’s really Furniture Row’s home track. We got that one in the spring after so many heartbreaks and then today it looked like it was going to happen and we just persevered.”

Kurt Busch – Finished 2nd: “I really wanted that one bad. I don’t know what it is about this place. Kyle (Busch) struggles here too. I feel like I’m on pins and needles most of the day. (Crew chief Tony) Gibson always throws nice adjustments at it and the race comes to us and we’re right there. We had a shot at winning. When we get it right, we’re right there.”

Ryan Blaney – Finished 3rd: “It was a good race. We did a nice job coming from the back and I thought we got our car pretty decent there in the second stage. Then there was a mixup with some strategy stuff and pit calls and it felt like we were kind of at the back part of that but we were able to recover and miss that wreck which was big for us. We ran strong enough all day that we should have been in with where we ran. I am really proud of my team for the effort and we will move on to the next round and Martinsville.”

Chase Elliott – Finished 4th: “It was a wild day for sure. We fought our balance all weekend. I know the result wasn’t terrible, but definitely feel like we could have been a lot better this weekend and just the way things worked out for us. But, our car got better as the day went along, we just didn’t have the balance on a very long run to go up and pass guys like you need to have. So, we will go to work and get this side of things ready for Texas.”

Denny Hamlin – Finished 5th: We definitely got our car better from where it was yesterday, but still a little bit off today. Just fought a terminal condition that we just couldn’t fix on pit road, but proud of the whole FedEx Toyota team for giving me something I could battle up front there with a little bit. Just got to get a little faster on the short run and we’ll be fine. The biggest thing we need to work on is short run speed. If we can do that, then we could contend, but we’re heading to a mighty good race track for us next week (Martinsville) that hopefully we’re able to capitalize.”

Chris Buescher – Finished 6th: “Yeah, absolutely that was an awesome day for our Scott brands Chevrolet. But, just proud of everybody back at JTG Daugherty Racing. We have been working really hard the last several months to try and get it turned around. We have hit the summer months and we haven’t had the speed we wanted. So, this weekend was a big step in the right direction for us. It’s excited. It’s fun to come back and run well.”

Dale Earnhardt Jr. – Finished 7th: “We ended up having a decent run. I am just glad that we brought another good finish home. I think that is about where the car should have finished this weekend. … (On missing the big wreck) It’s all luck.  A lot of times if you just run the back of somebody and push them through it that kind of works for you too. I did a little bit of that too. Just real lucky. That helped us on our finish today. I don’t know if we could get the track position and get a top 10. The car was fast enough at times to run up there and finish up there, but we will take it.”

Kevin Harvick – Finished 8th: “As you look at the result of the day you want to have a chance to win. We had a car capable of winning. Just got stuck in a box and the box kept on getting smaller and smaller. The caution came out with the 47 (A.J. Allmendinger spin) and that put us and the 18 in a bad spot. That was it. Our focus was one stage at a time and we accomplished that. After that it was about trying to win the race.”

Kyle Busch – Finished 10th: “I thought we had a good shot to go for the win today and got off on tire strategy a little today. (Martin) Truex got by us and he was checking out, but was just going to play it out when we pitted and the rest of those guys pitted, where it would all shake out. But obviously that caution came out and it bit us and got us behind. Fortunately, our situation today was that we had to race guys that ended up crashing out, hate it for them. I would have liked to race it heads up and that might have been a different situation, but all in all we’ll take what was given to us today and we’ll live to see another day and fight again next week going to Martinsville.”

Jimmie Johnson – Finished 11th: “(On Martinsville, where he has nine wins) It’s not a bad track for us. So, hopefully we can repeat last year’s performance there. And then we have Texas coming up. We’re not where we want to be. There’s no doubt about it. But, we’re staying alive and I know this team so well, we can find something and we’re going to sure as hell try to get it. It’s not back to zero with all those stage points. For us to advance moving forward we’ve got to win. We’ve got to win one of these next few races coming up. It’s really simple from our stand point. We’ve got to get some speed in our cars and we’ve got to win a race.”

Brad Keselowski – Finished 13th: “We were good enough and better than our finish. The pit road speeding penalty was ridiculous because I was way under pit road speed and running right with everyone else both times and they didn’t get a penalty. I will have to see that one for my own eyes. All in all, my guys put a good effort in it and I think we were better than we finished.”

Ty Dillon — Finished 16th: “Today was a definitely a crazy day at Kansas Speedway. With the changing track conditions as the sun set and shaded parts of the track, we had to be on top of the adjustments to our GEICO Chevrolet for the entire race. My team did a great job making calls, and I didn’t struggle with balance much at all. Track position was just key, and it was hard to make passes out there. Overall, I think this was a good weekend and shows the improvements to our intermediate-track package. There’s still work to be done, but we are definitely getting closer.”

Clint Bowyer — Finished 19th: “We just couldn’t get on the right side of anything, strategy-wise, nothing. We got caught up in the wreck. Certainly not the way you want to finish at home. I had a top-five car all weekend long, just wasn’t meant to be.”

Trevor Bayne — Finished 20th: “We really didn’t have anywhere to go during that deal on the backstretch. … It’s really unfortunate we didn’t get the result we deserve but we will keep fighting and get after it next weekend at Martinsville.”

Joey Logano — Finished 21st: “We had a tough day with our Shell-Pennzoil Ford. We struggled on short run speed and once the field got spread out it was tough to make up spots. Then we got caught up in the wreck later in the race and that damage certainly didn’t help us. We’ll regroup and head to Martinsville next week.”

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. — Finished 29th: “We really struggled today with the handling of our Fastenal Ford. It’s a bummer we couldn’t advance but no one really gave us a chance to make the Round of 12. Overall, we have had a great season so we can’t hang our heads. We have four more races to gain as many points as we can and finish off the season strong.”

Jamie McMurray — Finished 34th: “I had a really fast car. I thought we had one of the best cars, and I felt like if we could have gotten to the lead, I could have led the race for a while. It was a good Cessna Chevy. But we’ve had two bad races in a row and there’s nothing you can do about it. We had a car that could have won. I think if we could have gotten to the front, but just didn’t make it to the end.”

Erik Jones — Finished 35th: “(On his wreck) I just lost it. It’s unfortunate and I feel bad for my guys and my team and I also feel bad for the cars that we took out of the race. It’s just a shame, I made the same mistakes here in the spring and this place has just been tough to me. Fortunately we had a fast 5-hour ENERGY Camry and it was up front, we had worked our way back up to that point after having mishaps at the start of the day. Nonetheless, not the ending that we wanted, but hopefully we can come back a little stronger for Martinsville.”

Daniel Suarez — Finished 36th: “You have to thank NASCAR very much for all the work that they do on these race cars to make them very safe because I got hit from everywhere and I hit the 77 (Erik Jones) very, very hard. I’m perfect – the car’s not, but I’m good. Honestly, I don’t really know what happened. I just know that the 77 got very loose somehow and the next thing I saw was his door and my nose. I really couldn’t do anything at that point, but I haven’t seen a replay yet.”

Matt Kenseth — Finished 37th: “I don’t know what any of the rules are. Seems like we got a lot of stuff that kind of gets, you know, changed so often I honestly can’t keep up with it. My head kind of spins from putting lugnuts out of pit boxes to one too many guys over the wall, you’re not allowed to race anymore. I just don’t get it, to be honest with you. I really don’t have a lot good to say right now. I’m more than disappointed. We showed some flashes of brilliance this season, been off and on, been fast at times, had great pit stops at times, just haven’t been able to put it all together like a championship team needs to. Unfortunately this is an example of that. I hope that I can do a better job here the next four weeks and hopefully go get a win. … Honestly, I’ve never heard of disqualifying somebody from a race if you got one too many guys over the wall or whatever happened there. Couldn’t be any more disappointed.”

Danica Patrick — Finished 38th: “I came out and said, ‘I got a turkey,’ three in a row. That is some bad luck. The Code 3 car had just started to get better, just starting to get hooked up, actually. I actually felt like I was catching the right lanes and right movements on the track and having good restarts. Would have been nice to finish one off. We haven’t done that in awhile.

Kyle Larson — Finished 39th: “I guess, I’m not stunned because freak things happen in every sport.  I mean you look at every year in the past and a lot of times – most every time at least in the new playoff format era – not always does the best team win. Not saying we are the best team, but we have been one of the contenders all season long. So, I’m not stunned, because it is a long 10 race playoff season, so anything can happen, but we have had a solid playoffs.  We have been consistent and just now got bit. … (On winning 4 races and gets eliminated) It’s painful. A part of me, I guess, will maybe be thankful that it wasn’t on my doing. I keep saying everything sucks. I don’t really know how to answer these because it’s the same answer for every question.”

Jimmie Johnson survives multiple accidents to advance in playoffs

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Jimmie Johnson‘s championship hopes were in peril on Lap 197 of Sunday’s race at Kansas Speedway.

They were saved on Lap 198 by a 14-car crash that Johnson narrowly made it through.

Johnson, who finished 11th in the playoff elimination race, had come off consecutive spins on Laps 189 and 194 and trips to pit road for repairs when the wreck broke out on restart following his second spin. The first spin had sent his No. 48 Chevrolet sliding through the rain-soaked grass in the infield.

“The car was extremely loose,” Johnson told NBCSN. “We fought the balance throughout the day and the car would swing so hard. We were trying for short run speed to free the car up and we just got too far with it and I spun out twice. Thankfully I didn’t hit anything too hard.

“And when things really changed was down the back straightaway in that wreck. Somehow, I went through there at a high rate of speed and missed everybody. I don’t know how, but I made it. And then the No. 1 (Jamie McMurray) car was sitting there and I thought I had him lined-up for a square impact, but fortunately he slid out of the way. … It wasn’t a pretty day, but we got it done.”

Chad Knaus, Johnson’s crew chief, had less kind words for his team’s day.

“We ran like (expletive),” Knaus told NBC Sports. “It was a bad weekend. We managed to capitalize on some other people’s misfortune, which was great for us. We’ve got some work to do. I don’t know what’s going on. We definitely don’t have the speed that we need.

“Good news is we’ve got three really good racetracks coming up for us, at least historically. Very optimistic heading into Martinsville and going to Homestead this week to test, so hopefully we can hit on some stuff there to take to Texas. We’ve obviously have run well there in the past. Phoenix has been a really good race track for us as well. We’ve got three great opportunities. Just got to do the best.’’

Johnson is the active wins leader at Martinsville with nine. He is the defending winner of the fall race. It is his only top five in the last six races at the short track.

“It’s not a bad track for us,” Johnson said. “Hopefully we can repeat last year’s performance there. And then we have Texas coming up. We’re not where we want to be. There’s no doubt about it. But, we’re staying alive and I know this team so well, we can find something and we’re going to sure as hell try to get it.”

Johnson is also the defending winner at Texas Motor Speedway, where he earned one of his three wins this year in April.

At Phoenix, Johnson has four wins, but the last one came in 2009. He also only has one top five there in his last six starts.

Johnson heads into the Round of 8 seeded fifth in the standings with 4,017 points.

“It’s not back to zero with all those stage points,” Johnson said. “For us to advance moving forward, we’ve got to win.  We’ve got to win one of these next few races coming up.  It’s really simple from our standpoint.  We’ve got to get some speed in our cars and we’ve got to win a race.”

In his quest to win a record eighth Cup championship, Johnson has earned just four top fives this season. His third-place finish at Dover in the final race of the first playoff round is the only one since his June win also at Dover.

Johnson is the only driver who has won a race in every season of the playoffs entering 2017. He has four races left to continue the streak.