Is Texas the make-or-break race for Jimmie Johnson’s 8th championship hopes?

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With nine previous wins there, Jimmie Johnson came into Sunday’s race as the winningest active driver at Martinsville Speedway.

He failed to add to that total, finishing 12th on a day that saw him start at the back of the field due to a spin in qualifying, then quickly moved up into the top five by the end of Stage 1 thanks to pit strategy.

He eventually got to the front of the pack and led 24 laps before falling back to his eventual finish.

In the seven seasons Johnson has won the NASCAR Cup championship, he’s won the fall race at Martinsville four times (2006, 2007, 2008 and 2016). In the other three championship years, he’s finished second (2009) and fifth (in both 2010 and 2013) at the .526-mile paperclip shaped track, the smallest in NASCAR.

But now with Sunday’s finish, Johnson finds himself in a situation he’s never been in his career: with two races remaining in the Round of 8 semifinal round at Texas and Phoenix, Johnson is below the cutoff line, sitting fifth in the standings.

He’s never been that low at this point of the playoffs – even before the elimination format came into being in 2014 – and still went on to win the championship.

Johnson is going for a record eighth championship, which would put him ahead of the seven Cup titles won by NASCAR Hall of Famers Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt.

But Johnson’s chances right now are questionable at best.

He’s 67 points behind series leader Martin Truex Jr., 50 points behind Martinsville winner Kyle Busch, 29 behind third-ranked Brad Keselowski, and three points behind fourth-ranked Kevin Harvick.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, Johnson holds a three-point edge over sixth-ranked Ryan Blaney, a five-point margin over seventh-ranked Denny Hamlin, and leads eighth-ranked and Hendrick Motorsports teammate Chase Elliott by 23 points.

It’s kind of understandable that Johnson didn’t have much to say after Sunday’s race.

Perhaps part of the reason is he was involved in the last-lap multi-car wreck coming to the finish line that likely kept him from ending with a higher finish.

The other likely reason Johnson wasn’t as chatty as normal after a race is where he sits in the standings and the task he faces in the next two races if he hopes to reach Miami either with a win or via points.

“We were just terrible all day,” he said, shortly after being involved in the wreck. “Oh, what a bummer.

“We had high hopes for this weekend. Man, it just didn’t turn out so well. So, we scored some points here and there. We will go to the next one and try to get more.”

While Johnson can potentially still make it to Miami on points, it’s not going to be easy.

Yet at the same time, Johnson actually couldn’t be in a better position to reach Miami, even with his showing at Martinsville.

Texas Motor Speedway is Johnson’s fourth-most successful track when it comes to wins and overall success, with seven victories and 21 top-10 finishes in 28 career Cup starts there. That includes a win this spring there, as well as six wins in his last 10 starts on the 1.5-mile high-speed oval.

The only tracks he’s won more at are Dover (11 victories), Martinsville (nine) and Charlotte (eight).

Sure, he’ll have to contend at Texas with Martin Truex Jr., who has earned six of his seven wins in 2017 on 1.5-mile tracks, but Johnson definitely holds a decided edge over the seven other remaining playoff contenders heading to the Lone Star State.

And then there’s Johnson’s career record at Phoenix.

Sure, he’s won four times and had 20 top-10s in 28 career starts on the 1-mile oval. But there’s a caveat to that: his last win in the Valley of the Sun was the fall 2009 race.

And in his last six starts there, he’s managed just one top five (fall 2015) and one other top 10 (ninth in this year’s spring race).

So, it’s pretty clear that if Johnson is to make it to Miami and earn a record eighth championship, a win – or a top five at the very least – is almost mandatory at Texas.

NASCAR America: The challenges of Martinsville Speedway

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What Martinsville Speedway lacks in size compared to other tracks it makes up in difficulty say drivers and NASCAR America’s analysts.

Landon Cassill joined Carolyn Manno, Parker Kligerman and Jeff Burton on Thursday’s show and discussed the challenges of the half-mile paperclip track.

“It can be fun when it’s going well,’’ said Cassill, who will make his Cup season debut this weekend in the No. 00 for StarCom Racing. “That place, if you’re car is not handling well, you can end up going backwards and just by the time you’ve got some clear race track the leader is right behind you. So it can be frustration. I tend to like Martinsville.’’

Kligerman calls racing in the pack at Martinsville Speedway “the most aggressive racing I’ve ever been a part of in my life.’’

Jeff Burton said: “It’s … one of the hardest race tracks we go to period because you have to do it lap after lap after lap and it’s so easy to get, quite simply, just really, really mad at the guy you’re racing with because he’s hitting you and he’s banging on you.’’

Cup drivers have their description of the track. See what NASCAR America’s analysts and Cup drivers have to say about the track that hosts Sunday’s Cup race in the video above.

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Richard Childress Racing reinstates Xfinity crew chief Nick Harrison

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Richard Childress Racing has reinstated Nick Harrison to crew chief  of the No. 3 Xfinity team after he served a five-race suspension for a violation at Daytona International Speedway. 

Harrison’s first race back will be April 8 at Texas.

Harrison was suspended after the No. 3 car of Austin Dillon had a rear suspension violation in pre-qualifying inspection. Harrison and the team’s car chief were ejected by NASCAR after the violation. RCR imposed the suspension.

“I’m looking forward to being back with my team and winning races after my five-race suspension,” Harrison said in a statement from the team.

Brandon Thomas served as the interim crew chief while Harrison was out. Austin Dillon finished a season-best fourth for the team last weekend at Auto Club Speedway.

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NASCAR America at 5 p.m. ET: Martinsville breakdown, Aric Almirola and Bubba Wallace

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Today’s episode of NASCAR America airs from 5-6 p.m. ET on NBCSN and features host Carolyn Manno and Parker Kligerman in Stamford, Connecticut, and Jeff Burton and Landon Cassill from Burton’s Garage.

Among the topics today:

  •  Prepare for paint swapping, bent fenders, and bruised egos. It’s time to go short-track racing at Martinsville Speedway! Jeff, Parker and Landon will tell you what to expect this weekend at the famous half-mile. We’ll also see what it takes to succeed there, as Parker takes us for some quick laps in the NBCSN iRacing Simulator.
  • After making the switch to Stewart-Haas Racing in the offseason, Aric Almirola is off to the best start of his Cup Series career. Currently 10th in the standings, he’ll tell Marty Snider about his early season success.
  • Since finishing second at the Daytona 500, rookie driver Bubba Wallace has cooled off. Now he faces his first Cup Series start at Martinsville in the iconic No. 43 car, and he’s feeling confident — it’s where Wallace scored his first truck series win nearly five years ago. We’ll examine the struggles he might have to work through this season and also hear his reflections on his early years of racing in the latest edition of “A Driver’s Drive.”

If you can’t catch today’s show on TV, you can also watch it via the online stream at http:/ If you plan to stream the show on your laptop or portable device, be sure to have your username and password from your cable/satellite/telco provider handy so your subscription can be verified.

Once you enter that information, you’ll have access to the stream.

Click here at 5 p.m. ET to watch live via the stream.

Weekend schedule for NASCAR at Martinsville Speedway

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NASCAR returns to its backyard this weekend after the three week West Coast swing.

The Cup and Camping World Truck Series visit Martinsville Speedway in Southern Virginia.

The weekend is capped off by Sunday’s STP 500. It will be the first Cup race broadcast on Fox Sports 1 this year.

Here’s the full weekend schedule complete with TV and radio info.

(All times are Eastern)

Friday, March 23

8:30 a.m. – 6 p.m. — Truck garage opens

11:05 – 11:55 a.m. — Truck practice (No TV)

1:05 – 1:55 p.m. — Truck practice (Fox Sports 1)

3:05 – 3:55 p.m. — Final Truck practice (FS1)

Saturday, March 24

7 a.m. – 8 p.m. — Cup garage open

7:30 a.m. — Truck garage opens

10:05 – 10:55 a.m. — Cup practice (FS1, MRN)

11:05 a.m. — Truck qualifying; multi-truck/three rounds (FS1)

12:15 p.m. — Truck driver-crew chief meeting

12:30 – 1:20 p.m. — Final Cup practice (FS1, MRN)

1:30 p.m. — Truck driver introductions

2 p.m. — Alpha Energy Solutions 250; 250 laps/131.5 miles (FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

5:10 p.m. — Cup qualifying; multi-car/three rounds (FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Sunday, March 25

9:30 a.m. — Cup garage opens

Noon — Driver-crew chief meeting

1:20 p.m. — Driver introductions

2 p.m. — STP 500; 500 laps/263 miles (FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)