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.