It comes down to one race and 18 points for Jimmie Johnson.
The seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion has the unique honor of being the only driver to have appeared in the playoffs each year since they started in 2004. But if Johnson is going to keep that streak alive, and have a positive in a season full of struggles and disappointment, he has work to do at Indianapolis.
Johnson remains outside the playoff grid going into the regular-season finale. He is 18 points out of 16th-place.
“It is what it is,” said Johnson after the Southern 500. “We’ll keep digging.”
The progress Johnson, crew chief Cliff Daniels and the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team made at Darlington only knocked eight points off their deficit. And what a promising weekend it looked to be. Johnson was fast off the truck with an initial top 10 speed in opening practice and a sixth-place qualifying effort.
When the green flag dropped, he made quick work of his challengers to contend inside the top five and ran as high as second on the night. Johnson scored nine points in Stage 1 and four more points in Stage 2 after escaping unscathed from a furious battle with Clint Bowyer, although the two did lose a few positions.
Johnson’s race fell apart on Lap 276 as the race moved inside its final 100 laps. Running fourth, Johnson had nowhere to go when a multicar accident with Michael McDowell, Denny Hamlin, Daniel Hemric and others broke out in front of him. Johnson slammed into the spinning car of Hemric.
Damage to the left-front fender of Johnson’s Chevrolet required extensive repairs and patchwork under caution. Daniels offered a confident and calm tone over the radio, guiding his team into action and keeping Johnson on the lead lap. However, he finished 15th.
“The whole race we ran top six, top four, great car, great stops,” said Johnson. “Just bad luck. I guess I had 15 years of really good luck and the last two or three have been pretty bad.”
Indianapolis has been good to Johnson in the past with four wins, but a victory has been a stretch for the team recently. It’s been since 2017 since Johnson was last victorious. However, Johnson can make the postseason through points.
“It’s so hard, and also unfair to put pressure on this race and the next race,” said Johnson. “We’ve had however many to get here and made a lot of mistakes along the way. It might come down to just a few points, and you look at any race this year we could have (put) some more points together. So, for me, it’s really about the momentum of the team, the quality of the cars we’re taking to the track, quality of pit stops, quality of adjustments, and tonight we had an awesome car.
“We qualified great; we ran in the top four. I was running fourth when the wreck happened and got all kinds of damage to our car. So, it’s not the results that we want, but we’re definitely going in the right direction.”