BRISTOL, Tenn. – Jimmie Johnson stood smiling outside his battered No. 48 Chevrolet, joking with a few team members who gestured knowingly at the remains of the car.
The seven-time Cup Series champion is on the brink of missing the playoffs for the first time in 16 seasons of the NASCAR postseason after finishing 19th Saturday night at Bristol Motor Speedway, but it was hard to get upset after the way the cards fell over 500 laps on the 0.533-mile oval.
“Just one of those nights,” he told NBCSports.com. “We had one thing go our way, and about 15 that didn’t. It was just a shitty night.”
After starting 30th, Johnson got caught in a crash with Austin Dillon (who had suffered a right front tire failure) on Lap 80. He fell two laps down and spent the rest of the race playing catchup that now leaves him in a serious hole with two races remaining in the regular season.
The Hendrick Motorsports driver is ranked 18th in the standings, 26 points behind the cutoff line, and if a driver below him in the standings were to win at Darlington Raceway or Indianapolis Motor Speedway (as Matt DiBenedetto nearly did Saturday at Bristol), that would make Johnson’s situation even more dire.
“I think I’ve got one more shot,” he said when asked if he was facing a win-or-else situation. “I don’t know. It’s just so hard to predict. (Darlington and Indianapolis are) two great tracks for me. Two places I love. So we’ll just see what happens.”
It would help if Johnson can get a better start. Saturday was his fifth-worst starting spot in 36 races at Bristol, and the second time in the past four races that he had qualified 30th or worse.
“Without a doubt, qualifying put us in that spot,” Johnson said. “Better qualifying effort would have had us in a much better position. I wouldn’t have been near (Dillon) when he blew his tire, and life would be totally different.”
Still, Kyle Busch qualified one spot behind Johnson and was able to lead 30 laps and battle his way to a fourth.
The critical moment for Johnson might have happened just before the halfway mark. After pitting under yellow with five laps remaining in Stage 2, he sustained damage after contact with Paul Menard on the restart with two laps to go.
Though he ended the stage in the free-pass position, he had to pit again under yellow to fix a left-front fender rub – losing the free pass position and any hope of regaining the lead lap.
He got caught in a five-car wreck on Lap 373 that ripped off the right side of his car and required repairs for the energy-absorbing foam that fell out in the collision. He ended up finishing four laps down in a “respectable” 19th, his sixth consecutive finish outside the top 10.
But he seemed in good spirits after debriefing with crew chief Cliff Daniels, who doesn’t have a top 15 in three races since taking the helm of Johnson’s team.
“For as beat up as that car is and to run as we did on old tires most of the night, we had a good night, we just had a lot of bad luck,” said Johnson, who turns 44 in September and likely will need to decide soon if he will race beyond his contract expiring after the 2020 season. “I’ve got to look at the truth inside this team and how strong this team is, how good this team is geling, and I know the results are coming.
“It’s just a series of bad luck, and all of it started with a bad qualifying effort. We have to clean things up for sure. This team is really starting to gel and come along.”