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.

Denny Hamlin offers advice on how to deal with critics on social media

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Denny Hamlin, who has been fined by NASCAR for comments on Twitter, and was vocal toward critics after this year’s Daytona 500, says he’s found peace on how to deal with those on social media who don’t agree with him.

“I’ve been very good this year about not replying to mean people, and you all should do the same,’’ Hamlin said Friday at Sonoma Raceway.

“I’m making a (request) right now to every driver, every team owner, every NASCAR executive and every media member, stop replying to people who make nonsense comments. They have 16 followers. Don’t give them your 100,000. Do not give them your 100,000 as their stage. No one will ever see their comment, just brush it by, talk about the positives and I’m not a positive person.”

Asked how does one ignore such divisive comments, Hamlin said: “You just scroll by it. Forget it. That person doesn’t exit. They’re an admirer that has lost their way.’’

Hamlin has been better at doing so since the Daytona 500. He faced negative reaction on social media to the contact he and Bubba Wallace had at the end of the Daytona 500.

They engaged in a brief shouting match in the garage area after Hamlin learned that Wallace had taken a dig at him on national TV about a recent comment about drivers using Adderall.

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Clint Bowyer leads opening Cup practice at Sonoma

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Clint Bowyer was the fastest in the first of two Cup practices Friday at Sonoma Raceway.

Bowyer, the winner of the most recent Cup race two weeks ago at Michigan, posted a lap of 93.590 mph. He was followed by Ryan Blaney (93.546 mph), Joey Logano (93.172), Jamie McMurray (93.049) and Daniel Suarez (92.746).

Sixth was Jimmie Johnson (92.661). He was followed by Michael McDowell (92.650), Martin Truex Jr. (92.614), AJ Allmendinger (92.596) and Ryan Newman (92.595).

Click here for full practice report

Final Cup practice will be from 5:40 – 6:55 p.m. ET. Qualifying will take place Saturday.

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Kyle Larson: ‘I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t love NASCAR racing’

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Kyle Larson‘s comment on Twitter earlier this week that he would like to run full-time in the World of Outlaws sprint car series “before I’m 40” might have riled some fans, but Larson says it was not meant as anything bad toward NASCAR.

“I don’t know, I think maybe some people aren’t quite as open-minded, maybe,” the 26-year-old Larson said Friday at Sonoma Raceway. “It’s like they read it as if I said in two years from now I wanted to do it. I mean 15 years from now that would put me 20 years in Cup. So, that is a long time. 

“I think Jeff Gordon spent about that much time in the sport (Gordon raced in Cup 23 full-time seasons), but I don’t know, maybe I don’t do the best job in the world of talking about how much I love NASCAR as much as I do sprint cars, but I do. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t love NASCAR racing.

“I enjoy sprint cars, and I feel like I talk about sprint cars a lot just to open people’s eyes to that style of racing because it’s a great form or racing and so is NASCAR. So, I don’t know, I just want fans to be fans of motorsports not just NASCAR and not just sprint cars. I would like to see everybody just enjoy all of racing and I think that is what I do. Maybe I don’t do a good job at it sometimes, but you know, I enjoy racing all types of vehicles. Most fans get it, but some fans aren’t quite open-minded enough.”

It was on the official World of Outlaws podcast in December where Larson expressed his desire to eventually transition to the World of Outlaws.

“NASCAR is where I wanted to make it, but I would have been perfectly fine if I didn’t make it either,” Larson said on that podcast in the offseason. “I’d probably be on the Outlaw (sprint car) tour probably right now, racing and loving life … I would say racing on the World of Outlaws tour full-time is my main goal.”

Larson just finished running five nights of Ohio Sprint Speedweek. He won two of those nights. Rain postponed a sixth event before the feature that Larson was to have run. Larson said he has the dirt track race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on his schedule. Indianapolis is building a quarter-mile dirt track inside Turn 3 to run during the NASCAR weekend there in September.

Larson is in his fifth full Cup season. He has five career series wins. Although winless this season, Larson has finished runner-up three times (Auto Club Speedway, Bristol and Pocono).

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Four Cup cars to be docked practice time at Sonoma

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Four cars will miss time in today’s opening practice at Sonoma Raceway for violations, NASCAR announced Friday.

David Ragan will miss 30 minutes for failing inspection before the race at Michigan three times.

Kyle Busch, Kyle Larson and Kasey Kahne each will be docked 15 minutes for failing inspection twice before the Michigan race.

Today’s opening Cup practice goes from 2:40 – 3:55 p.m. ET.

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