Former champions battling to stay alive in Cup playoffs

Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
0 Comments

KANSAS CITY, Kansas — Title hopes could end today for more than one series champion.

Former champ Jimmie Johnson holds that final transfer spot to the next round, but he leads former champion Kyle Busch by seven points and former champion Matt Kenseth by eight points.

“This is our first Homestead of this year,’’ Busch said, referring to the season finale that determines the crown. “We’ve got to come through this race. It’s not a must-win, but it is a must-perform.’’

It will be challenging because Busch, Johnson and Kenseth are all strong at this track.

Johnson’s three wins at Kansas are the most among active drivers. Busch has finished in the top five in five consecutive Kansas races. Kenseth has led 269 of the 536 laps (50.2 percent) run in this event the past two years.

That makes Sunday’s elimination race (3 p.m. ET, NBCSN) even more intriguing.

Johnson, who is in his first bid to break a tie with Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt for most Cup championships, finds himself in this spot because of a lack of speed. It’s hurt him in qualifying, costing him stage points, and hurt him throughout the race.

“We are a team and a group that thrives on adversity,’’ said Johnson, who noted he was the slowest of the championship cars last year in Miami and still won his record-tying seventh title.

“Whenever we have been backed into a corner we have always stepped up and have delivered. All the members of this No. 48 team love a challenge, and we are not even close to losing that desire and that fight to be out there and compete and race for the win and race for the championship.’’

Mistakes have plagued the team the past two weeks. At Charlotte, Johnson took off before all the lug nuts were secured on the left front tire and had to back up to have that remedied, losing time. Last week, spotter Earl Barban told the team they could begin work on Johnson’s wrecked car before the red flag was withdrawn. NASCAR parked the team for the infraction.

“There are lessons learned in everything,’’ Johnson said. “When I think of the Charlotte pit stop itself and I think of Talladega and the mistake there that Earl made, really all mistakes come from guys trying as hard as they can. 

“I personally have sympathy for that. I mean, the guys are just trying to do the best job they can and everybody makes mistakes. I make plenty of them, and I think Fridays show that on a regular basis. It’s hard for me to jump on somebody over that.  What I ask of myself is to learn from those lessons and try not to repeat them.’’

Kenseth, winless in his last 48 starts, has a Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota but his team has seemed to be the weakest of JGR’s playoff teams throughout the postseason.

“If we don’t run good Sunday, then we don’t deserve to be in the next round anyway,’’ Kenseth said Friday.

Kenseth lamented the performance he and his team had at Kansas in May, finishing 12th.

“You’re only as good as your last race,’’ he said. “Our last one here we ran really, really bad.

Kenseth suggests he might have to knock someone else out of a playoff spot if Kyle Busch runs like he’s capable.

“If I’m Kyle (Busch), I’m feeling pretty good,’’ Kenseth said of his teammate. “He’s crashed two weeks in a row and he’s still in (playoff contention). That’s pretty amazing. Plus he’s been running so good, it’s one of his better places now. So I wouldn’t be very concerned if I was Kyle, I guess, because he’s had the performance.

“Now, (Jimmie Johnson) hasn’t run quite as good as he’s accustomed to running. We haven’t run as good as we’re accustomed to running.”

That Busch is so close after a miserable round (29th at Charlotte and 27th at Talladega) is because he has so many more playoff and stage points than Johnson and Kenseth.

Busch has 41 playoff points. Johnson has 17 and Kenseth five.

Busch’s job is simple he says.

“I look at it as out-finishing (Johnson) and (Blaney) by three, four spots each stage, each round, in order to make up enough points to pass them both,’’ he said. “Whether that’s doable or not, we’ll see. We’ll certainly try. We’ll fight hard, hopefully run up front all day long. We’ve done that this year. We did that here in the spring. We just need to back it up and do it again when it’s crunch time.”

 and on Facebook