INDIANAPOLIS — On the cusp of failing to make the Cup playoffs for the first time in his career, Jimmie Johnson prefers to look at what he could accomplish Sunday with a win at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
“It would be a heck of a story to tie Jeff (Gordon) with five (wins) here and to come through a drought and all the things that we all know,” Johnson said of an 84-race winless streak that dates back to 2017. “To have all that come to a conclusion and lock myself into the playoffs would be one hell of a story. Hopefully, that is the story.”
Johnson, Clint Bowyer, Daniel Suarez and Ryan Newman are battling for the final two playoff spots in today’s race at Indy (2 p.m. ET on NBC).
Bowyer has an eight-point lead on Suarez and Newman. Suarez holds the final playoff spot via a tiebreaker on Newman. Johnson is 18 points behind Suarez and Newman.
That Suarez and Newman are tied in points adds a layer to their duel. Newman spun in last week’s Southern 500 with Suarez closely on Newman’s left rear.
“Everything kind of cycles in our sport and what comes around goes around,” Newman said. “I don’t think he meant to turn me around, but he did turn me around. It is just racing. I get it. Whether he plowed through me like (Matt) Kenseth did to (Joey) Logano (at Martinsville in 2015) or just took the air off me or whatever, it is racing. I don’t have any intentions going into this race other than to do the best that I can for our team.”
Suarez contends there was no contact between the cars at Darlington Raceway.
“I have a lot of respect for him,” Suarez said of Newman. “He is a very aggressive driver. One of the most aggressive. People know that. Sometimes we race hard and sometimes you know what the limits are and sometimes we push a little bit hard. It was just a racing deal. I didn’t mean to spin him out. I didn’t mean to wreck him. But I wanted to pass him.”
Suarez also faces the possibility of competing against Bowyer, his Stewart-Haas Racing teammate, for a playoff spot.
“Clint and I, we are good friends and we know that if we can help each other, we will, but at the same time we will race hard,” Suarez said. “That is what we do. We’re smart. He’s got plenty of experience, and I’m not dumb.
“I know what I have to do, and he knows what he has to do. We are going to go out there to do what we do best and try to beat each other but, at the same time, without trying to kill each other. Hopefully things work out in a good way for both of us.”
Bowyer, who is coming off top-10 finishes the past two races, says that is what his team can do if it can avoid the issues that have plagued it this season.
“I think Darlington was a snapshot of our capabilities,” Bowyer said. “I have said it time and time again, when we race to our capabilities we are a (top-10) car. A lot of things go into play on that. I feel like we have raced inside the single digits several times this year and more often than not struggled to get the finish and manage track position.”
Johnson and the No. 48 team know Bowyer’s pain. Johnson’s team has struggled much of this season. That lack of performance led Hendrick Motorsports to replace Kevin Meendering with Cliff Daniels as crew chief in late July.
Johnson enters this weekend with seven consecutive finishes outside the top 15. His performance last weekend at Darlington was his best in recent weeks. He was fast in practice, qualified sixth, scored points in both stages and was in the top five when he was collected in a crash that he couldn’t avoid. His team was headed for one of its best performances of the season.
“We’ve had plenty of bad luck, that’s for sure,” Johnson said. “Last weekend we did perform well through practice and qualified well and ran well. We’re getting there. What I have learned through this two- or three-year drought and difficult time, is just how important the team is.
“I’ve known it. I’ve lived it. And, I’ve been the beneficiary of some amazing teams. And, I just didn’t realize how fragile it was until I got involved and had to start building that and help select the right people in place to build that team. It’s been an interesting journey. And through it all, I’ve learned a ton. I really have. And, I think we’re in a spot now that everybody can see where the hard work has gone and that we’re starting to show up and perform.”
But even if Johnson’s team has a flawless performance Sunday, there’s no guarantee Johnson will be among the 16 drivers to race for a championship.
“I have been able to work through some really tough situations and come out on top over the years,” Johnson said. “There are no guarantees on what happens here this weekend, but I do feel like if that opportunity presents itself, the experience I have will help me stay calm and help me do the right things in that moment. So, it helps me sleep better, absolutely, knowing what I’ve pulled off in the past. It helps with my confidence rolling into this weekend.”
It was 2016 when Johnson didn’t have the best car in the championship race in Miami but circumstances fell his way and he won his record-tying seventh title. That crown came a day after Suarez won the Xfinity championship.
That Xfinity title has been something Suarez has reflected upon this week as he prepared to race for a playoff spot.
“I have had a lot of flashbacks from that weekend,” Suarez said. “I feel like I was able to handle that weekend extremely well. I feel like I work pretty well under pressure, and I have been that way since I was racing go karts and was trying to find sponsors and trying to win races to be able to continue and go on to the next one. It feels good. It feels good to be here and good to be in this position and hopefully just like we did in 2016 we can end up the weekend on the good side of things.”