Despite struggles, Jimmie Johnson still believes he can ‘come out on top’

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JOLIET, Illinois — Jimmie Johnson is immortal.

And beatable.

Even if Johnson doesn’t win another Cup title, he will live in NASCAR history with Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt as the only seven-time champions. No active driver has more than one Cup crown, so Johnson will not be topped anytime soon, if ever.

“Thanks for blowing my mind,’’ he said.

(Photo by Matt Hazlett/Getty Images)

Some day, a driver might wear a helmet that pays tribute to the future Hall of Famer, just as Johnson did last year in Homestead, honoring Petty and Earnhardt before winning the championship. Johnson saluted Cale Yarborough with a special helmet at Dover this season when he was one win short of tying his hero. Johnson won that race for career victory No. 83.

That was June 4.

The sport has moved forward as Johnson has fallen behind heading into today’s playoff opener at Chicagoland Speedway (3 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

Since Johnson’s last win, Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s replacement was named, two drivers announced that their wives were pregnant and controversies erupted over merchandise sales, one team suspending pit crew members for another team and a wayward ambulance.

If ever there was a year to doubt Johnson’s title hopes, this would seem to be it.

Of course, it’s become cliché to note Johnson’s summer slump, people doubting him entering the playoffs and then Johnson raising the championship trophy after the season finale.

Should he lift the Monster Energy Cup over his head in November, it will be quite a triumph in more than one way. The 3-foot tall trophy weighs nearly 70 pounds — twice as much as the NHL’s Stanley Cup and 10 times as much as the NFL’s Vince Lombardi Trophy that goes to the Super Bowl winner.

But if Johnson raises the trophy, it also will mean he will have defeated 15 other drivers and truly stand alone in the sport.

June 4: Jimmie Johnson wins at Dover; Kyle Busch’s crew chief, front tire changer and tire carrier face a four-race suspension after a wheel comes off Busch’s car after a pit stop.

June 18: Joey and Brittany Logano announce that she is expecting the couple’s first child.

Johnson’s last Cup victory came 106 days ago.

To put it into perspective, Christmas is 100 days away.

Johnson’s average finish in the 10 races before the playoffs is 20.3 — his worst total since 2011 but not far off what he’s done in recent years.

His average finish in the 10 races before last year’s playoffs was 19.5 and he won the title. His average for those races was 18.3 before he won the 2013 title.

(Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)

It’s not just been him. Hendrick Motorsports teammates Chase Elliott, Kasey Kahne and Dale Earnhardt Jr. also have not had speed this summer. Elliott, Kahne and Johnson — Hendrick’s drivers in the playoffs — have combined for four top-10 finishes in the six races since Indianapolis.

“It’s been frustrating,’’ said Johnson, who starts today’s race 14th.

His wins early helped offset any frustration. Johnson’s three wins came in the season’s first 13 races.

“We won early, had good speed early, and in the back of my mind I was thinking that I hoped we were not peaking too soon,’’ Johnson said. “Then the summer happens. As you are in the middle of summer, the silver lining is that we are going to get through this eventually and come out on top. Maybe it is good to peak early, have the summer kind of challenge you, and then peak again.’’

July 3: Kyle Larson tweets about his dissatisfaction with what drivers make on merchandise sales, triggering a Twitter debate on the subject.

July 7: Matt Kenseth says he won’t return to Joe Gibbs Racing after this season

Johnson has made NASCAR’s postseason each of the 14 years and has won at least one playoff race every year entering this year.

He looks forward to the playoffs because the tracks match his style.

(Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

Johnson is the all-time victory leader at Dover with 11. He’s tied for third all-time in wins at Martinsville with nine after his victory there in last year’s playoffs that advanced him to the championship finale in Miami. He is the all-time wins leader at Texas with six, which includes four consecutive victories in the playoff race there before Carl Edwards broke Johnson’s streak last year.

The one oddity to his playoff success is that Chicagoland Speedway is one of three tracks he’s never won at in Cup. This track, though, was the site of his lone Xfinity win. He scored a fuel-mileage victory in the track’s inaugural Xfinity race in 2001.

Even though he has not scored a Cup win at Chicagoland, Johnson notes that “the stats do show that we have a great average finish at Chicago.’’

His average finish is 9.5 — better than Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth, Ryan Newman, Martin Truex Jr., and Earnhardt, who all have won at least once at Chicagoland.

July 11: Kevin and DeLana Harvick announce they are expecting their second child.

July 20: Alex Bowman selected to replace Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the No. 88 in 2018.

Kevin Harvick has a theory to Johnson’s playoff success after forgettable summers.

(Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

“Sometimes you get behind and you physically can’t prepare vehicles and make all the upgrades to the vehicles in time to put yourself in a position to run well from when you stopped running well, and it can happen instantly,’’ Harvick said. “Look at (Joey Logano). They had a scenario that they built the car around, whatever that scenario was, they built their car around and NASCAR didn’t like it, so they changed the rules and from that point on they were in a rebuilding phase to try to get themselves in position. 

“What you hope is you’re in a position like (Johnson) was, where they won a couple races and I think they were in a similar position where they had some rules change and they had some things happen and couldn’t run the stuff that they were running anymore. From that point, you have to start the rebuilding process and it’s a massive ship to turn around.’’

So, don’t read too much into those summer struggles by Johnson is what Harvick suggests.

It’s a good theory and Johnson’s success in past years, including last year when the team struggled in the summer before winning the title, shows what can happen.

July 27: Joe Gibbs Racing suspends two of its pit crew members who work for Furniture Row Racing for an incident on pit road with Kyle Busch’s crew chief at Indianapolis. JGR later cedes control of such employees to Furniture Row Racing.

Aug. 8: Kevin Harvick says on his SiriusXM NASCAR Radio show that Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s lack of success stunted NASCAR’s growth.

A dominating regular season has put Martin Truex Jr. far enough ahead with playoff points that he should advance deep into the postseason and is a favorite to race for the title in Miami.

Despite his domination — four wins, 18 stage victories and a series-high 1,646 laps led — Truex is not discounting Johnson’s title hopes even with the reigning champ’s summer slumber.

“I don’t think our guard is down when it comes to any team, let alone them,’’ Truex said. “You have to look at them, what they’ve done, know they’re going to be around and they’re going to be tough.”

He’s not alone.

(Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

Kyle Busch, also a favorite to be racing for the title in Miami, won’t overlook Johnson and his team.

“I’ve had friends over the years that have worked for Hendrick and have worked with the 48 team,’’ Busch said. “They always say, ‘Man, when Chicago comes … Jimmie’s got a switch that he flips on, and it’s on.’ So we’ll see if he can do it again. He has before, right? So don’t count him out.”

Aug. 19: Kyle Busch wins the Cup race at Bristol to compete a sweep of the Camping World Truck, Xfinity and Cup races there that weekend. It’s the second time he’s accomplished that feat.

Sept. 9: A wayward ambulance at Richmond briefly puts Matt Kenseth’s playoff hopes in jeopardy, one of a series of incidents that raised questions about NASCAR’s officiating.

Jimmie Johnson turns 42 today and while he’s not ready for retirement, he knows he’s moving closer to the end of his career and the end of his pursuit of eight titles. Or nine. Or 10.

(Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images)

“I am here for reasons of being successful,’’ Johnson said. “ Winning races and winning championships. So, every year that I extend and have agreed to, I am all in and here for one reason.  So that is more of it than thinking I might only have four chances left the way the contract lays out. It’s more about knowing what I can give and how demanding the sport is. And knowing what I can sign up for and really giving it 100 percent.”

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Matt Tifft fastest in first of 2 Xfinity practices at Kentucky Speedway

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Matt Tifft ran 25 laps during Friday afternoon’s first of two NASCAR Xfinity Series practice sessions at Kentucky Speedway.

But it was just one lap that mattered the most, as Tifft (180.427 mph) emerged from the 55-minute practice as the fastest in the 36 cars that took to the track.

Brian Scott was second (179.253 mph), followed by Ryan Preece (178.465), Brandon Jones (178.288), Justin Allgaier (178.271), Ben Kennedy (178.136), Elliott Sadler (177.573), Tyler Reddick (177.544), Spencer Gallagher Jr. (177.503) and Brennan Poole (177.381).

Interestingly enough, only four of the top-10 were playoff contenders. The seven-race Xfinity playoffs begin with Saturday night’s VisitMyrtleBeach.com 300.

There will be one more practice session today from 6:30-7:25 p.m. ET.

Qualifying and the race are Saturday.

Click here for the full practice speed grid.

Christopher Bell fastest in final Truck practice at New Hampshire

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Christopher Bell was fastest in the second and final NASCAR Camping World Truck Series practice session Friday afternoon at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Bell covered the 1.058-mile flat track with a top speed of 132.877 mph.

Ben Rhodes was second (132.301 mph), followed by Todd Gilliland (132.213), Matt Crafton (132.122) and Noah Gragson (132.071).

Sixth through 10th were Johnny Sauter (132.016), Austin Cindric (131.865), Grant Enfinger (131.683), Ryan Truex (131.656) and Kaz Grala ((131.533).

Qualifying for the UNOH 175 takes place Saturday at 10 a.m. ET, while the green flag for the race drops three hours later at 1 p.m. ET. Both qualifying and the race will be televised on FoxSports1.

Click here for the full speed grid from the final Truck practice.

New Hampshire to host September spectacular next year

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LOUDON, New Hampshire – Although the Cup series will not race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway next September, the track still will have racing.

Officials from New Hampshire Motor Speedway and NASCAR announced Friday that the track will host multiple series Sept. 21-22. The track will host:

  • A 250-lap NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour race, the longest race in series history.
  • A 125-lap NASCAR K&N Pro Series race that will include series champions from the Mexico and Europe series.
  • A 100-lap NASCAR Pinty’s Series race in the first race for the Canadian series in the United States.

Practice and qualifying will take place on Sept. 21. Racing will be Sept. 22.

“We are creating a short-track weekend that I think fans from across the Northeast are going to be so excited about,” said David McGrath, executive vice president and general manager of the speedway.

McGrath estimates the track will attract 15,000 – 20,000 fans for the inaugural event.

“We will start there and certainly hope to grow there,” McGrath said. “We certainly have the space to do it.”

Jim Cassidy, NASCAR senior vice president of racing operations, has high hopes for this event.

“Anytime we enter into a conversation about a special event like this, it’s done thinking about the long term and building,” Cassidy said. “I would like to look at this as certainly a building block on a big-time weekend for racing.”

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Ricky Stenhouse Jr. ready to move past Chicagoland woes

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LOUDON, New Hampshire — Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was blunt as he looked back at last weekend’s 25th-place finish in the opening playoff race.

“It’s the worst playoff race I’ve ever had,’’ he said before quickly adding, “actually, it was the only playoff race I ever had.’’

A week after he hit the wall, had a commitment line violation and sped on pit road to finish last among the 16 playoff drivers, Stenhouse heads to a New Hampshire Motor Speedway that has been unkind to him. His average finish of 20.44 at this track is the worst among the playoff contenders.

It’s easy to peg Stenhouse, whose best finish at New Hampshire is ninth, as one of the four drivers who won’t advance to the second round after next weekend’s race at Dover International Speedway.

Stenhouse says don’t end his title hopes just yet.

“I think there are tracks you look at where you feel like, ‘Hey, we don’t run well there,’ ‘’ Stenhouse said Friday. “There are tracks you look at and average finishes aren’t as good as what you really ran, and I think New Hampshire is one of those race tracks for us.

“I can count two or three times where we’ve been in the top 10 and we come down on our last pit stop and we’ve had freak accidents on pit road that we end up restarting tail end. I think that skews a little bit on the finishes, so I think we’ve got confidence that we can run with those cars that we’re chasing.’’

He better or his playoff experience will be brief. He enters Sunday’s race (2 p.m. ET on NBCSN) four points out of the cutoff spot.

“We keep our head up because we’re only four points out, so I think that’s the key message around the shop this week,’’ Stenhouse said. “We had, by far, the worst race we could have ever thought of having and we’re still close. I think that’s the key.”

For him to turn in a good run — and a good finish Sunday — Stenhouse said the key will be where he starts and how strong he is on restarts.

“We’ve always been really good on the long runs and you get quite a few long runs here,’’ said Stenhouse, who was 24th on the speed chart after Friday’s practice. “That seems to be our strong suit. Restarts seem to be some of the areas that we need to get better at. I was on the plane ride up today just looking at our notes from this last race and that was it. 

“We were strong on the long runs, needed to get our restarts better, and need to qualify better. These first two stages you can really run without pitting, so that first stage it’s going to be important to qualify well and make sure we put ourselves in a position to maybe get some stage points if it does go green, and our car is good on the long runs.’’

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