A generation of drivers grew up watching Jimmie Johnson win races and championships year after year.
It was nearly all they knew from 2006-10 when Johnson won the Cup championship five consecutive seasons and visited victory lane in nearly 20% of the races run during that time.
Now, they see the seven-time champion winless in his last 84 races and fighting to make the playoffs. Critics question Johnson and expect his 15-year streak of postseason appearances to end when the checkered flag waves in Sunday’s regular-season finale at Indianapolis Motor Speedway (2 p.m. ET on NBC).
Those drivers who watched Johnson dominate when they were teens are not among the doubters.
“I would like to see him just win to shut everyone up,” said Kyle Larson, who was 14 when Johnson won his first Cup title. “When you are watching somebody like that dominate, you never expect to see them in this position, being winless for as long as he’s been, at risk of not making the playoffs and having a chance to win the championship.
“I think it just shows how tough our sport gets, how tough our drivers are, how close our equipment is, and how good of a combination him and Chad (Knaus) really were. Hopefully they can figure something out and finish upfront where he belongs.”
Xfinity title contender Christopher Bell also is rooting for Johnson this weekend.
“I love to see the greats win,” said Bell, who was a month shy of turning 12 when Johnson celebrated his first Cup crown. “For example, seeing Tony Stewart win at Sonoma (Raceway in 2016) was unbelievable. That was one of the coolest things ever. Sammy Swindell, Steve Kinser, the dirt drivers, seeing those guys still compete and win – Steve’s done now, but Sammy still runs – that’s the coolest thing ever to me.
“Like Tiger Woods winning the golf deal, right? How awesome was that when he won the Masters? I don’t think Jimmie is done by any means, but it’s going to be really, really cool whenever we see him win again just because he’s been doing it for so long and you have to respect how good he’s been for so long and we’re not sure if we’ll ever see that again, right?”
Alex Bowman was 13 when Johnson’s title reign began. Now he watches Johnson’s challenge up close as a teammate at Hendrick Motorsports.
“We are doing all we can to get Jimmie into the playoffs,” Bowman said. “But, at the end of the day, they’ve had a lot of bad luck and a tough year. He is still more motivated and fired up than ever, at least since I’ve been around. He’s a big part in the success that I’ve had, I feel like. He definitely still has it and he’s not given up.
“I think everyone has learned over the years that you can’t count the 48 out by any means.”
Johnson enters the weekend 18 points out of the final playoff spot. He’s among four drivers vying for the final two spots. Clint Bowyer has an eight-point lead on Daniel Suarez, who holds the last playoff spot. Suarez and Ryan Newman have the same number of points but Suarez is ahead based on the tiebreaker of best finish this year. Then comes Johnson.
For those that have counted out Johnson?
“I can’t wait to shut up the keyboard warriors that are out there,” he said. “The people that are close to me and the people on my race team know the truth. They know the story. They’ve been working hard on it and when you work hard, wins will come. So, that’s where I find my peace. I know all the effort I’ve put into this program and for what my guys have put into the program.”
2. Sticking to the plan
For all the focus on Jimmie Johnson seeking to make the playoffs a 16th consecutive year, new crew chief Cliff Daniels continues to preach the need to build the No. 48 team at a deliberate pace.
While making the playoffs gives Johnson a chance to win a record eighth title, realistically, his odds of accomplishing that feat this year would be slim based on how the team has performed.
It is Daniels’ job to manage building a team while pursuing the playoffs.
“Part of the reason for the methodical approach we took coming (to Darlington) and we’re going to take to Indy is to make sure we’re placing the building blocks correctly so that as we move forward we know why we have run good, why we’ve made the calls that we’ve made or made the decisions that we’ve made and all of that is in place,” Daniels said after last week’s Southern 500.
“Jimmie and I both know how important it is to meet our goals now but sometimes things just don’t work out. We’re still going to go to Indy with a really solid approach and things may work out and I certainly hope they do. But in the event that they don’t, we still have 10 races where this approach, this team, this energy, this vibe and just the whole process that we’ve built is really going to carry us. Now we get to go into the season one way or the other with a plan in place for how we’re going to meet our goals and take that into those final 10 races one way or the other and build on that for next year.”
A key is that Daniels is having more of an impact on the cars Johnson drives. Daniels was promoted from engineer to crew chief before last month’s race at Watkins Glen. With cars built or refined ahead of time, it wasn’t until last week’s Southern 500 where Daniels was able to do more with the car’s setup for Johnson. The result was that Johnson qualified sixth — his best starting spot since Chicagoland in June — scored points in both stage points for only the third time this season.
3. Don’t look back
History can’t beat someone but history can show the challenges ahead.
Take Ryan Newman and Roush Fenway Racing. Newman enters this weekend outside of the final playoff spot based on a tiebreaker with Daniel Suarez.
While Newman could finish deep in the field and still make the playoffs, that scenario isn’t as likely. Good chance he’ll need a strong finish, but history has not been kind to Roush Fenway Racing at Indy.
The organization’s last top 10 at Indy was in 2012 when Greg Biffle placed third.
Since, these are the organizations that have scored at least one top 10 at Indy:
Joe Gibbs Racing (16 top 10s since 2013)
Stewart-Haas Racing (10 top 10s)
Hendrick Motorsports (9 top 10s)
Team Penske (8 top 10s)
Chip Ganassi Racing (5 top 10s)
Richard Childress Racing (5 top 10s)
JTG Daugherty Racing (2 top 10s)
Furniture Row Racing (2 top 10s)
Wood Brothers Racing (1 top 10)
Go Fas Racing (1 top 10)
Michael Waltrip Racing (1 top 10)
If you wish to counter that, then look at what Newman did the past two seasons with Richard Childress Racing, finishing 10th at Indy last year and third the year before. And he won the 2013 race for Stewart-Haas Racing.
Hendrick Motorsports has qualified three of its drivers (Alex Bowman, Chase Elliott and William Byron) with Jimmie Johnson trying to claim one of the final spots.
Stewart-Haas Racing could have all four of its drivers make the playoffs for a second year in a row if Clint Bowyer and Daniel Suarez both advance to join Kevin Harvick and Aric Almirola.
Roush Fenway Racing is trying to break into the playoff picture with Ryan Newman.
Unless there is a surprise winner Sunday at Indy, the Cup playoffs could feature drivers from just five organizations. Last year’s Cup playoffs featured drivers from seven organizations.
5. High standards
Tyler Reddick could clinch the Xfinity regular-season title in Saturday’s race at Indianapolis (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN).
He needs to leave Indy with a 61-point lead on second in the standings. Reddick holds a 51-point lead on second-place Christopher Bell.
Reddick, the reigning series champion, is on the cusp of the regular-season title because of a season that ranks among the best in series history.
His average finish of 4.9 ranks second all time among drivers to compete in all 24 races. His 21 top 10s are tied for second most through 24 races all time in the series. His 19 top-five finishes are third most through 24 races all time in the series.
On Wednesday’s edition of NASCAR America’s MotorMouths, a caller — “Texas Tommy” from Corpus Christi, Texas — offered a question that got analysts Kyle Petty and Steve Letarte thinking and talking.
Given how Tiger Woods won The Masters this past Sunday in dramatic fashion, and also given how much success Woods has had in his career, “Texas Tommy” wanted to know whether Petty and Letarte agreed if Kyle Busch — with all the success he’s had — is the Tiger Woods of NASCAR?
“He’s about the best driver NASCAR has and (most) dedicated of races he’s put in in the Cup, Truck and Xfinity Series,” “Texas Tommy” said. “He’s about the best driver that I can come up with next to Jimmie Johnson. He’s shown promise in every series and he has no stop in him.”
Petty both agreed and disagreed.
“That’s a valid point if we look at wins and what he does on the racetrack,” Petty said of Busch. “Yes, (Busch) has those numbers. Tiger Woods won his fifth Masters and 15th major, all that. You look at all that and what Kyle Busch has done at a relatively young age, Tiger Woods did the same thing at a young age.
“The problem is, and the difference is, Tiger Woods has the entire sport of golf on his shoulders. It grows, it falls, it goes to the left, to the right. Everything Tiger does, every fan that follows golf is watching, whether you like Tiger Woods or not.
“Kyle Busch doesn’t have that. He isn’t that way, he doesn’t have that connection to the fans, for whatever reason. People love to boo him, but if they boo him, they’re not going to follow him. I don’t know if we have that Tiger Woods personality or person (in NASCAR). I think Kyle (Busch) moves the needle for me. What he does on the racetrack, what he does in the garage area or on the radio, he moves the needle. Jeff Gordon moved the needle, then Dale (Earnhardt) Jr. moved the needle, and then there’s been nobody since.”
Letarte, former crew chief for Dale Earnhardt Jr., agreed with Petty, yet also added he believes Chase Elliott has the potential to become NASCAR’s version of Tiger Woods – but with a caveat.
“Tiger Woods doesn’t move the golf needle, he moves the needle outside of golf,” Letarte said. “That’s really what we’re talking about. Let’s be clear. There are very few people in any sport that transcend their sport. Tiger Woods is one of them.
“Jeff Gordon was on Saturday Night Live, he was outside of NASCAR. In the current world of NASCAR, Clint Bowyer has a great personality, but doesn’t have Tiger Woods numbers on the race track. Kyle Busch, I’m not going to say he has Tiger Woods numbers, but he’s one of a few that have great numbers but lacks the relatability, the needle, outside the sport. You can’t generate it, something has to cross.
“You have to have someone like perhaps Chase Elliott, someone who has the opportunity and the image and the ability.”
And then came the caveat from Letarte:
“But then Chase Elliott has to deliver the numbers that we’ve never seen before, because that’s what Tiger Woods did. You’ve got to start talking 10-win seasons and championships. … There is no recipe. It just happens.”