Jimmie Johnson: Two races away from title No. 8, or one race away from elimination

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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.

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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