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.
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.