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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Friday 5: Questions about size of future Hall of Fame classes

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After NASCAR celebrates the ninth Hall of Fame class tonight (8 p.m. ET on NBCSN), questions may soon arise about how many inductees should be honored annually.

NASCAR inducts five people each year. When NASCAR announced eligibility changes in 2013, a former series executive said that the sanctioning body would “give strong consideration” to if five people should be inducted each year and if there should be a veteran’s committee “after the 10th class is seated.’’

The 10th class — which Jeff Gordon will be eligible for and expected to headline— will be selected later this year and honored in 2019. That gives NASCAR a year to determine what changes to make if officials follow the schedule mentioned in 2013. NASCAR has discussed different scenarios as part of its examination of the Hall of Fame.

Among the questions NASCAR could face is should no more than three people be inducted a year? Should only nominees who receive a specific percentage of the vote be inducted? Should other methods be considered in determining who enters the Hall? 

Only one of the last five classes had all five inductees selected on at least 50 percent of the ballots. Five people in the last three classes each received less than 50 percent of the vote.

The challenge is that if NASCAR reduced the number of people inducted after the Class of 2019, it could create a logjam in the coming years.

Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards (provided Edwards does not return to run a significant number of races) would be eligible for the Class of 2020.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Matt Kenseth (provided Kenseth does not return to run a significant number of races) would be eligible for the Class of 2021.

Stewart would appear to be a lock for his year and it seems likely Earnhardt would make it as well his first year.

If the Hall of Fame classes were cut to three a year, and Stewart, Earnhardt and Kenseth each were selected in those two years, that would leave three spots during that time for others.

The nominees for this year’s class included former champions Bobby Labonte and Alan Kulwicki, crew chief Harry Hyde (56 wins, 88 poles) and Waddell Wilson (22 wins, 32 poles), car owners Roger Penske, Jack Roush and Joe Gibbs and Cup drivers Buddy Baker, Davey Allison and Ricky Rudd.

A 2019 Class that might feature Jeff Gordon, Harry Hyde, Buddy Baker and two others would still leave some worthy candidates who might not make it for a couple of years if the number of inductees is reduced.

Of course, there are those who haven’t been nominated that some would suggest should be, including Smokey Yunick, Humpy Wheeler, Buddy Parrott, Kirk Shelmerdine, Neil Bonnett, Harry Gant and Tim Richmond. That could further jumble who makes it if the number of inductees is reduced.

Those are just some of the issues NASCAR could face as it examines if any changes need to be made.

2. Hall of Fame Classes and vote totals

Note: NASCAR did not release vote totals for the inaugural class (2010 with Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt, Junior Johnson, Bill France Sr., and Bill France Jr.). Below are the other classes with the percent of ballots each inductee was on:

2018 Class

Robert Yates (94 percent)

Red Byron (74 percent)

Ray Evernham (52 percent)

Ken Squier (40 percent)

Ron Hornaday Jr. (38 percent)

2017 Class

Benny Parsons (85 percent)

Rick Hendrick (62 percent)

Mark Martin (57 percent)

Raymond Parks (53 percent)

Richard Childress (43 percent)

2016 Class

Bruton Smith (68 percent)

Terry Labonte (61 percent)

Curtis Turner (60 percent)

Jerry Cook (47 percent)

Bobby Isaac (44 percent)

2015 Class

Bill Elliott (87 percent)

Wendell Scott (58 percent)

Joe Weatherly (53 percent)

Rex White (43 percent)

Fred Lorenzen (30 percent)

2014 Class

Tim Flock (76 percent)

Maurice Petty (67 percent)

Dale Jarrett (56 percent)

Jack Ingram (53 percent)

Fireball Roberts (51 percent)

2013 Class

Herb Thomas (57 percent)

Leonard Wood (57 percent)

Rusty Wallace (52 percent)

Cotten Owens (50 percent)

Buck Baker (39 percent)

2012 Class

Cale Yarborough (85 percent)

Darrell Waltrip (82 percent)

Dale Inman (78 percent)

Richie Evans (50 percent)

Glen Wood (44 percent)

2011 Class

David Pearson (94 percent)

Bobby Allison (62 percent)

Lee Petty (62 percent)

Ned Jarrett (58 percent)

Bud Moore (45 percent)

3. Charter Switcheroo

Five charters have changed hands since last season. One will be with its third different team in the three years of the charter system.

In 2016, Premium Motorsports leased its charter to HScott Motorsports so the No. 46 team of Michael Annett could use it.

The charter was returned after that season, and Premium Motorsports sold the charter to Furniture Row Racing for the No. 77 car of Erik Jones for 2017.

With Jones moving to Joe Gibbs Racing and Furniture Row Racing not finding enough sponsorship to continue the team, the charter was sold to JTG Daugherty for the No. 37 team of Chris Buescher for this season. (The No. 37 team had leased a charter from Roush Fenway Racing last year).

So that will make the third different team the charter, which originally belonged to Premium Motorsports, has been with since the system was created.

4. Dodge and NASCAR?

Fiat Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne excited fans when he said in Dec. 2016 about Dodge that “it is possible we can come back to NASCAR.’’

One report last year stated that Dodge decided not to return to NASCAR, and another countered that report.

While questions remain on if Dodge will return to NASCAR, Marchionne announced this week at the Detroit Auto Show that he’ll step down next year, and that Fiat Chrysler will release a business plan in June that will go through 2022. The company will announce a successor to Marchionne sometime after that.

Marchionne said, according to The Associated Press, that the U.S. tax cuts passed in December are worth $1 billion annually to Fiat Chrysler.

A Wall Street Journal story this week stated that Fiat Chrysler makes most of its profit from its Jeep and Ram brands, writing that those brands “have been on a roll as U.S. buyers shift to these kinds of light trucks and away from sedans, which is a segment the company has largely abandoned.’’

5. NMPA Hall of Fame

The National Motorsports Hall of Fame will induct four people into its Hall of Fame on Sunday night. Those four will be drivers Terry Labonte and Donnie Allison and crew chiefs Jake Elder and Buddy Parrott.

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BRANDT returns for third year with JR Motorsports in Xfinity Series

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BRANDT Professional Agriculture will return as a sponsor for JR Motorsports in the Xfinity Series, the team announced Wednesday.

The company will be a primary sponsor of Justin Allgaier‘s No. 7 Chevrolet in 19 races and an associate sponsor of Allgaier and his three teammates the rest of the season.

Brandt has sponsored Allgaier for eight years, including the last three with JR Motorsports.

Allgaier is a native of Riverton, Illinois, which is 15 miles from Springfield, Illinois, where the company is headquartered.

JR Motorsports

Allgaier, 31, is coming off his second season that ended with him in the Championship 4. He earned two wins, 10 top five and 17 top-10 finishes. He also led a series-high 495 laps among Xfinity regulars.

He will be teammates with Elliott Sadler, Tyler Reddick and Michael Annett this year.

The Xfinity season begins Feb. 17 at Daytona International Speedway.

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NASCAR revamps Rookie of the Year points system in national series

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NASCAR has changed how it determines the Rookie of the Year in all three national series, it announced Thursday.

The new system, which will debut in a month at Daytona International Speedway, reflects the points system that decides the champion in each series, including the stage format in races.

A race win will earn a rookie candidate 40 points and five playoff points. A second-place finish will is worth 35 points and a third-place finish is 34 points, etc.

A rookie candidate who wins a stage will earn 10 points and one playoff point.

“The focus on our rising stars has never been stronger and simplifying the Sunoco Rookie of the Year system made perfect sense,” said Jim Cassidy, NASCAR’s senior vice president of racing operations in a press release. “Our fans track closely the progress of our young drivers and matching the Sunoco Rookie of the Year points structure with the championship points will help them follow this prestigious program and award more closely than ever before.”

Erik Jones was Rookie of the Year in the Cup Series last year. William Byron won the honor in the Xfinity Series and Chase Briscoe won it in the Camping World Truck Series.

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Watkins Glen, Michigan announce multi-year sponsor deals

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Watkins Glen International and Michigan International Speedway announced multi-year sponsorship deals for their Cup Series races Thursday.

WGI announced the Aug. 5 race at the road course will be sponsored by GoBowling.com. The 90-lap race will be called “Go Bowling at the Glen.”

This is not the first time the bowling brand has sponsored a Cup event. It sponsored the spring race at Kansas Speedway from 2016-17 and the August event at Pocono Raceway from 2013-14.

As part of the deal, Go Bowling will have two bowling lanes at the track for the race weekend.

Michigan has renewed its sponsorship deal with FireKeepers Casino Hotel for its June Cup race for “many years.”

The hotel in Battle Creek, Michigan, began its relationship with MIS by sponsoring pole day in 2014. It began sponsoring the June race in 2016.

TheFireKeepers Casino 400 is scheduled for June 10.

ISM Raceway (Phoenix) also announced the title sponsor for its March 11 Cup race.

The event will called the TicketGuardian 500.

TicketGuardian is a mobile ticketing insurance provider. When fans purchase tickets to events at ISM Raceway, they will be given the option to add TicketGuardian’s ticket protection coverage. This allows fans to have insurance on the tickets they’ve purchased in advance.

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