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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Race results, Truck Series point standings after Eldora

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In a deal that came together at the last minute, Chase Briscoe battled ThorSport teammate Grant Enfinger during a two-lap shootout at Eldora Speedway and won the Edlora Dirt Derby for his second career win.

Along with Kyle Busch (Las Vegas Motor Speedway) and John Hunter Nemechek (Martinsville Speedway), he becomes the third driver this season to win who is not competing for Truck points.

Enfinger finished second as the two banged together crossing under the checkers.

Last year’s second-place finisher in this race, Stewart Friesen finished third while last year’s winner Matt Crafton came home fourth.

Brett Moffitt rounded out the top five.

Click here for complete results.

Despite finishing 16th, Johnny Sauter maintained the points lead by 32 over Noah Gragson.

Gragson finished sixth at Eldora.

Moffitt, Enfinger and Friesen round out the top five.

Click here for the complete points report.

Chase Briscoe wins Truck Series race at Eldora

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Chase Briscoe and ThorSport teammate Grant Enfinger banged doors as they crossed the finish line of the Eldora Dirt Derby at Eldora Speedway with Briscoe winning by a bumper. It was Briscoe’s second career Truck win. His first victory came in the season finale last year at Homestead-Miami Speedway. He has not raced in the Camping World Truck Series since, so this gives him consecutive victories.

Briscoe lobbied Ford for the ride, but the deal came together at the last minute, Briscoe said from victory lane.

The race had an extended green flag segment during the final stage, during which USAC National Midget racer Logan Seavey pulled away from the field. Two multi-car accidents in the closing laps involving Todd Gilliland, Myatt Snider, Dalton Sargeant and several others allowed Briscoe to climb through the field and set up the green-white-checkered finish.

Stewart Friesen finished third with Matt Crafton and Brett Moffitt rounding out the top five.

Briscoe is the sixth different winner in six editions of this race. Last year’s winner Crafton was the only previous winner in the field.

STAGE 1 WINNER: Ben Rhodes

STAGE 2 WINNER: Chase Briscoe

HEAT RACE 1 WINNER: Ben Rhodes  (Complete Results)

HEAT RACE 2 WINNER: Todd Gilliland (Complete Results)

HEAT RACE 3 WINNER: Chase Briscoe (Complete Results)

HEAT RACE 4 WINNER: Matt Crafton (Complete Results)

HEAT RACE 5 WINNER: Stewart Friesen (Complete Results)

LAST CHANCE QUALIFIER WINNER: John Hunter Nemechek (Complete Results)

HOW CHASE BRISCOE WON: Briscoe took the lead from Seavey on the next-to-last restart before holding off Enfinger in a two-lap shootout.

WHO HAD A GOOD NIGHT: Simply making the A Main was an accomplishment for Norm Benning, who finished fourth in his heat race. He was involved in a late-race accident and finished last (32nd) … Stewart Friesen won his heat race and finished third after coming home one position short to Crafton last year. … Noah Gragson was forced to race his way into the Eldora Dirt Derby through the Last Chace Qualifier and climbed to sixth. … In his fourth career Truck race, Nick Hoffman scored his first top 10 with a 10th.

WHO HAD A BAD NIGHT: Attempting to make his first Truck race, RJ Otto walled his truck in the Last Chance Qualifier and spun with two laps remaining. …  Rhodes slapped the wall early in stage two and was forced to pit, losing two laps in the process. Rhodes spun again with 53 laps remaining. … Points leader Johnny Sauter qualified 34th, failed to race his way directly into the A Main via his heat race and spun early. He finished 16th. … Ryan Newman was collected in an accident involving Matt Crafton and Tyler Dippel. He lost four laps making repairs and finished 30th.

NOTABLE: Seavey dominated the final stage of the Eldora Dirt Derby, but a poor lane selection on the next-to-last restart cost him the lead. Restarting fourth on the final run, he was shuffled further back through the field to finish eighth, but came within four laps of winning in his Truck debut. Seavey was coming off a win at Sweet Springs (Missouri) Motor Complex, which gave him the overall victory in the USAC Mid-Atlantic Midget Week points standings.

QUOTE OF THE NIGHT: “I wasn’t going to wear him out; I wasn’t just gonna wreck him for the win. We rubbed. I definitely let it float all the way to the wall and I’m sorry about that; it’s not how I race. But this means so much to win at Eldora. … This is our Daytona for dirt guys.” Chase Briscoe on FoxSports1.

WHAT’S NEXT: Gander Outdoors 150 at Pocono Raceway at 1 p.m. ET on July 28 on FS1.

NASCAR America: Kyle Busch would like to see more Xfinity, Truck short track races

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With the Camping World Truck Series racing their high-profile dirt race at Eldora Speedway, it opened up the question about whether the Cup or Xfinity series should also make a return to dirt.

That was a question for this week’s Bump & Run feature, and Kyle Busch also had an opportunity to weigh in Wednesday night on NASCAR America.

“I’m cool with it. I think it would be fun to see, one,” Busch said. “Two, I think it’s great that the trucks have that; let’s leave it special for the trucks.

“(The trucks) haul around dirt all the time. My Toyota Camry … ain’t gonna go around out there and haul around dirt.”

So, if Eldora doesn’t make Busch’s cut for a new venue on the Cup schedule, what would?

“I don’t know how you bring back the other venues and make it successful,” Busch said, mostly because of the limited infrastructure and seating capacity.

And while Busch is not supportive of tracks that previously held Cup races getting another date, he does believe there are options for NASCAR to explore.

“I think Trucks and Xfinity should be doing more of that than the mile-and-a-half stuff,” Busch continued. “Trucks and Xfinity should go to the Pensacolas, go to the Nashvilles, go to South Boston, go to Hickory … and make those races that anybody can sign up to run.”

For more, watch the video above.

Follow Dan Beaver on Twitter.

Alex Bowman primed for playoff battle

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Any victory would be special for Alex Bowman. Not only would it be his first in Cup but also secure a playoff spot this season. But should that win come in two weeks at Watkins Glen, there would be extra reason to make that victory meaningful.

Wednesday on NASCAR America, Bowman unveiled the Nationwide Children’s Hospital car that he’ll drive next month at Watkins Glen. The car features 28 butterflies. A butterfly in flight represents optimism at the Nationwide Children’s Hospital, which has a staff of more than 13,000 providing state-of-the-art pediatric care during more than 1.4 million patient visits annually.

“Going to the Children’s Hospital, it’s amazing to see what they do for the kids and how little things that they do just keep the kids that much happier,” Bowman told NBC Sports. “It’s just amazing to see what they do and see how much the sports programs have raised for the Children’s Hospital through Nationwide. It’s really special just to be a small part of that, to have any role in putting smiles on kids faces.

“I would say if we were able to win with the Children’s Hospital car, it would be really special. It’s more having a patient champion’s name on the door, what it could mean to them.”

Before Bowman races at Watkins Glen, he has this weekend’s race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway (2 p.m. ET on NBCSN) and then Pocono the following week.

After his last-place finish at Kentucky last weekend, he leads Ricky Stenhouse Jr. by nine points and Paul Menard by 23 for that final playoff spot.

“I’m doing all that I can, and I feel like I’m doing my part,” Bowman said. “Obviously we’ve been off this year and we need to get better. Pressure for me really comes from me. I want to run better.

“There’s not a lot of added pressure from the team, the crew or media, really. I just want to run well and give the fans something to cheer for. Pressure comes from myself. I want to make the playoffs really bad, but I don’t want to make the playoffs and get eliminated in the first round.

“I want to make the playoffs and make a statement there. I think we could do that. We’re on a path to getting better. Kentucky obviously was rough for us, as the 88 team and as a company.”

Bowman also is confident in how his team stacks up against Stenhouse’s team and Menard’s team.

“Obviously, there’s a lot of pressures on those guys to try to erase that gap,” Bowman said. “Hopefully we can make them make mistakes by keeping the pressure on them, too.”

“I feel like we’ve got better race cars than the 17 (Stenhouse) most weeks, and we’ve got to better execution than the 21 (Menard) for the most part, if we can continue that.”

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