Johnson playing the underdog in 2018 playoffs

by Tucker White On Fri, Sep. 14, 2018

LAS VEGAS - MARCH 04: Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe's for Pros Chevrolet, goes through inspection prior to the start of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Pennzoil 400 presented by Jiffy Lube at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on March 4, 2018 in Las Vegas. Photo: Robert Laberge/Getty Images

Jimmie Johnson sits sixth on NASCAR’s all-time wins list. He’s tied with Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt for the most championships in NASCAR history. He’s never failed to qualify for the playoffs. There virtually no doubt that he’s a first-ballot hall of fame inductee when he decides to hang up his helmet.

The career statistics, however, paint a far more rosy picture than his 2018 numbers.

Johnson enters the 2018 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs 15th in points, in the midst of a career-worst season.

Even for the ever stoic Johnson, the subpar performance isn’t lost on him.

“You’re not human if it doesn’t bother you, and I do know that I have a role in the performance of this car and a leadership role in the team,” he said yesterday at playoff media day. “I don’t know that I am responsible for where we’re at as well. It has been hard on me. There have been days and weeks and, unfortunately, months when I’m much stronger dealing with it and other times when it’s a little more difficult.”

Specifically, he referenced his run two weeks ago at Darlington Raceway as a race in which he finished worst than he should (oil pump failure relegated him to a 39th-place finish).

“We had a great car and we could have run up there in the top three, but I made a series of mistakes that triggered other mistakes within the team and we had a terrible night.”

To be fair, Johnson’s performance isn’t isolated. Hendrick Motorsports has run mediocre for the last two seasons. Chase Elliott’s win at Watkins Glen International was the organization’s first since Johnson’s last victory at Dover International Speedway in June of 2017.

But the lackluster results, whether or not it’s fair, are magnified when it involves a driver who’s won 83 times in his career.

Riding a 47-race winless streak, Johnson hasn’t been a front-runner at any point this season. He’s finished Top-five twice, eight Top-10’s and led a meager 29 laps this season. To underscore the laps led point, both Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick have led over 1000 laps this season.

Having won at least two races in every season of his career since 2002, Johnson faces the prospect of his first winless season.

“It would be a disappointing year if we didn’t win a race,” he said. “I’ve set a high bar to win since my rookie year, so winning a race seems like something we should be able to do. If that doesn’t happen, I’d certainly be disappointed. I do know that we have not left anything on the table and poured everything we can into it. Not that it would be satisfying on every level, but making sure we acknowledge the effort that went into it and not beat ourselves too hard on it. But I certainly hope that doesn’t happen.”

The 10-race playoff lineup might favor a season turnaround for the driver of the No. 48 Chevrolet. Johnson has won at every track on the 10-race playoff lineup. At six, including this weekend’s stop, he’s either the winningest driver or winningest active driver.

But for the 48 team to pull off a miracle finish to the season, the performance must crank up to 11. And with Busch, Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. having career seasons, and Brad Keselowski running at “The Big Three’s” level, that’ll be a Herculean task.

Not one driven by stats, however, Johnson is taking inspiration from Green Bay Packers starting quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who not only returned to the Packers Week 1 matchup against the Chicago Bears, but overcame a 20-point deficit in the 4th Quarter to beat the Bears 24-23.

“I watched the game. It is so inspirational to see that happen, and I’ve been able to live through and create a few of those moments on my own,” Johnson said. “It’s amazing to experience it and when you reflect back you’re like, ‘Wow, I really did that.’ You want to believe you’re capable of it, but until you do it and see it you just don’t know. I know what we’re capable of and I know we’ve done the unthinkable in the past. To win this eighth championship, we’re going to have to do something that’s never been done before, so I have optimism and belief that we’ll have another look at an eighth championship. I don’t know if it’s this year, next, the year after, but we have everything stacked up around it to make it happen. I don’t expect it to come easy; no championship does.”

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