A "three-alarm fire" for Johnson's playoff hopes

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A "three-alarm fire" for Johnson's playoff hopes

NASCAR

A "three-alarm fire" for Johnson's playoff hopes

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Back outside the playoff grid as the regular season continues to wind down, nothing needs to be said within Jimmie Johnson’s team about having to fight for a postseason spot.

“We know the reality of where we are, and we’ve got a three-alarm fire,” Johnson said Saturday at Pocono Raceway. “We’ve got to get this thing turned around. I look back four or five races; we’re leading laps, we’re finishing in the top five a couple races in a row, and we just had two bad races. Unfortunately, a parts failure and unfortunately a crash at Kentucky, so we just went back to the bottom side of the bubble.

“I know we have better speed than where we ran the last two weeks, and I think we are a top-five car, a top 10 car, but we need to get back to winning. And we don’t have any time. We don’t have any time for this year; we’re up against the backstop for time this year.”

Johnson is the first driver below the cutline, 17 points behind Clint Bowyer. He was running inside the top 10 when he crashed at Kentucky Speedway two weeks ago, and again when he had a mechanical failure last weekend in New Hampshire. It resulted in back-to-back 30th-place finishes after Johnson had strung together consecutive top-five efforts.

Although he’s a three-time winner at Pocono, Johnson has not been to victory lane at the track since 2013. His winless drought in the Cup Series is now at 79 races, dating back to June 2017 at Dover.

The seven-time champion believes Hendrick Motorsports is more competitive when the tracks require more downforce. But his team under crew chief Kevin Meendering is still “needing a little bit”, with just eight top-10 finishes this season. Including the Gander RV 400 (Sunday, 3 p.m. ET, NBCSN), there are six races left in the regular season, and Johnson looks at the stretch as one week at a time.

“And I think with my experience and my patience in general, I just try to stay calm, weather the storm,” said Johnson. “Hopefully, I can spot where opportunity may lay for us to win a race, or my team can in strategy, but being aggressive like I was at Kentucky trying to race with the 22 [Joey Logano] led to me crashing; led to the start of a big loss of points.

“So, I just need to fall back on my experience, and dial up 100 percent. Anything more is only going to create problems, and I cannot carry the car from a 10th-place car to a winning car. If it’s a 10th-place car, I just need to finish 10th and collect those points and go on.”

Can Johnson really fathom the idea of not making the playoffs for the first time in his career?

“It happens to everybody,” he said. “I’ve gone this long, and of late I’ve had plenty of streaks end and gotten used to this. Emotionally, if it happens, it happens. I know that I’ve given it my all. It won’t bother me as much as some of these other streaks have bothered me. You live and learn, and I had a hell of a run for a long time.

“We’re trying to rebuild and get back right now, and I do feel like we can get back on top of the sport again. It’s just going to take a little time. We still have some work to do, and hopefully, we can get it cleaned up this year. And if not, I know we have some good stuff in the works for next year.”

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