Jimmie Johnson: Two races away from title No. 8, or one race away from elimination

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After Jimmie Johnson won his seventh championship in the last 11 years last season – tying NASCAR Hall of Famers Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt for one of the loftiest records in the sport – 2017 was expected by some to be the year Johnson moved into an echelon of his own.

An echelon that would be a record like Petty’s 200 career Cup wins: never to be broken.

When Johnson won two of the first eight races (and three of the first 13) this season, it appeared he was right on track to win a record-breaking eighth championship.

But something has gone horribly wrong between then and now. As the NASCAR Cup playoffs move into their penultimate race this Sunday at Phoenix, Johnson is one race away from advancing to the Championship 4 race at Miami in two weeks – or not.

And given how the No. 48 performed in Sunday’s AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway – finishing 27th, three laps off the lead lap – it’s looking like “not” is more likely.

Sunday’s result was Johnson’s worst showing in the first eight races of this season’s NASCAR Cup playoffs (his previous had been 24th at Talladega, where he was parked after his team worked on the car during a red flag period).

Johnson finds himself in a very unlikely position after Texas: last of the five remaining Championship 4 contenders: Brad Keselowski, who is above the transfer line, and the four drivers below the transition line: Denny Hamlin, Ryan Blaney, Chase Elliott and Johnson.

Johnson cannot make the championship race at Miami on points. He’s in a must-win situation at Phoenix, plain and simple.

Johnson has an excellent record at Phoenix Raceway: four wins, 15 top five and 20 top-20 finishes (plus three poles) in 28 Cup starts.

But there’s a caveat: his last win at the one-mile oval was in fall 2009. And since the fall 2014 race in the Valley of the Sun, Johnson has just one top five and one other top-10 finish.

At the opposite end of the spectrum in those last six races, he also has two poor outings: 39th in fall 2014 and 38th in last year’s fall playoff race (although he would still go on to win the championship the following week).

After Sunday’s race at Texas, even Johnson seemed to slightly question his chances of reaching Miami via Phoenix.

“(Phoenix has) been a good track for us, but this last half of the year has been really weird,” Johnson said. “In places where we expect to run well and traditionally do, we haven’t.

“But I know we’re building a better race car and taking a few new ideas to Phoenix and we’ll go there and fight as hard as we can. And that’s one thing this team will never do is give up.”

Johnson, crew chief Chad Knaus and the rest of the 48 team have to literally pull a rabbit out of a hat at Phoenix to reach Miami.

Even though the No. 48 team finds its back against the wall, if anyone can rally and pull a win out of its back pocket and then win the championship, it’s definitely Johnson and his crew.

“We’ve got to figure something out,” Johnson said.

Watch: Championship 4 drivers share thoughts on Miami outcome

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After 200 laps Saturday at Homestead-Miami Speedway, William Byron claimed the Xfinity Series championship in his rookie year by finishing third in the Ford EcoBoost 300.

He finished ahead of his JR Motorsports teammates, Elliott Sadler and Justin Allgaier, and Richard Childress Racing’s Daniel Hemric.

Watch the above video for Byron’s first interview as a NASCAR champion.

Below are interviews with the remaining Championship 4 drivers.

Elliott Sadler

Sadler placed eighth in the race after contact with Ryan Preece with less than 10 laps to go cut a tire on his No. 1 Chevrolet. It Sadler’s fourth runner-up result in the points in his Xfinity career.

Justin Allgaier

Allgaier finished 12th in the race after struggling for most 300-mile event. He was competing without his primary crew chief, who had been suspended for the race. Chad Knaus, the seven-time champion crew chief in the Cup Series with Jimmie Johnson, helped out on the pit box for the No. 7 Chevrolet.

Daniel Hemric

Hemric finished last among the Championship 4 drivers in 34th after his No. 21 Chevrolet experienced battery problems early in Stage 2. Hemric spent 12 laps on pit road before returning to the race.

JR Motorsports sweeps top three in final Xfinity Series standings

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William Byron finished third in Saturday’s Ford EcoBoost 300 to give JR Motorsports its second Xfinity title.

The team, co-owned by Dale Earnhardt Jr., swept the top-three spots in the final standings with Elliott Sadler placing second and Justin Allgaier in third.

Daniel Hemric placed fourth after finishing last among the Championship 4 drivers in the race.

Race-winner Cole Custer ends the season in fifth.

Click here for the points results.

Results, stats for Xfinity season finale at Miami

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Cole Custer led 182 laps to win the Ford EcoBoost 300 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. It’s his first Xfinity win and the first series win for Stewart-Haas Racing.

Custer swept all three stages of the race and beat Sam Hornish Jr., William Byron, Tyler Reddick and Ryan Preece.

Byron clinched the Xfinity title with his third-place finish.

Click here for results.

Cole Custer wins first Xfinity race; William Byron claims series championship

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Cole Custer dominated to win Saturday’s Ford EcoBoost 300 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, earning his first Xfinity Series victory, as William Byron finished third to clinch his first Xfinity championship.

Byron, 19, clinched the championship and the Rookie of the Year award by finishing ahead of teammates Elliott Sadler (eighth) and Justin Allgaier (12th).

Byron passed Sadler for good with six laps to go after the drivers battled closely for the top spot among the Championship 4 contenders for much of the last 50 laps.

“I don’t think I breathed for the last 20 laps, that was incredible,” Byron told NBCSN. “(Sadler) raced me clean. We raced hard for it. I can’t believe this. I just got to thank God for giving me this platform to perform. I can’t believe this. I’m tired.”

Sadler’s chances of getting back by his teammate were ruined when he made contact with the left rear of Ryan Preece soon after he had been passed by Byron. The contact got Preece sideways and caused Sadler to get into the wall.

Damage from the impact cut a tire on Sadler’s No. 1 Chevrolet. After the race, Sadler got into a confrontation with the Joe Gibbs Racing driver on pit road. Sadler finished runner-up in the championship standings for the fourth time in his career.

Byron’s title is the first championship for JR Motorsports since Chase Elliott‘s in 2014.

Daniel Hemric‘s chances at a title disappeared on Lap 61 when he visited pit road for a battery problem. The Richard Childress Racing driver returned to the track 12 laps later. Until he was passed by Byron on Lap 54, he was the highest running championship driver. Hemric finished 34th.

Custer’s victory comes in his 38th series start. The win is also the first Xfinity victory for Stewart-Haas Racing.

The 19-year-old driver led 182 of the 200 laps, a series-high at the track.

“I haven’t done that in a while,” Custer told NBCSN in Victory Lane. “We definitely had something to prove this weekend. We were so close to making (the Championship 4) last weekend. … Our Haas Automation Ford was unreal. We really wanted to have a good showing on Ford Championship weekend, even though we weren’t in it.”

STAGE 1 WINNER: Cole Custer

STAGE 2 WINNER: Cole Custer

MORE: Race results

WHO HAD A GOOD DAY: Sam Hornish Jr. finished second for his third top five in six starts this season … Pole-sitter Tyler Reddick finished fourth in his last start with Chip Ganassi Racing … Ryan Preece finished fifth in his fourth start of the year. He placed in the top five in all four races … Ty Majeski finished 10th in his third start of the year for Roush Fenway Racing. It’s his first top 10.

WHO HAD A BAD DAY: A day after winning the Truck Series title, Christopher Bell finished 36th after losing his engine on Lap 78 … Ryan Reed finished 20th after being issued a penalty on the initial start of the race.

NOTABLE: Sam Hornish Jr.’s runner-up finish helped Team Penske clinch the owner’s championship … William Byron finished his rookie season tied with Erik Jones (2016) for the second most wins by a rookie with four.

QUOTE OF THE NIGHT: “To be honest with you, if there’s a person you don’t want to cost a championship to it’s Elliott Sadler.” – Ryan Preece