Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – INDIANAPOLIS, IN – Much of Jimmie Johnson’s playoff insurance depends upon Sunday’s Big Machine Vodka 400 at the Brickyard (2 p.m. ET, NBCSN, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
Of course if the four-time Indy winner scores yet another trophy, it’s very simple. He’s in. A solid finish is imperative for sure, as the seven-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup champion navigates a playoff berth in one of the more challenging seasons he’s had in a historic 16–year Cup career.
The driver of the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet is looking for his first win since summer of last season. He has two top-five and eight top-10 finishes through the opening 25 races. As the series prepares for its regular season finale on Sunday, Johnson is ranked 15th in the playoff standings with a 19-point cushion on his teammate Alex Bowman in 16th. Sixteen drivers advance to the playoffs, which begin in Las Vegas next week.
Indy has typically been a bright spot on the race calendar for Johnson, who won in 2006, back-to-back in 2008-09 and then again in 2012. He won the 2008 race from the pole position. Twice more he’s finished among the top three, including a runner-up effort in 2013 when he led a race-best 73 laps.
His 302 laps out front is most in this weekend’s field. He and Kyle Busch (2015-16) are the only two drivers to ever win consecutive races at Indy. And Johnson is ranked first or second in three key statistical categories – Driver Rating, Fastest Laps and Laps Led.
He’s had two top fives in the five years since his last win and was going for the late-race lead when he crashed out in 2017.
“Last year’s race at the Brickyard was pretty exciting – a final lap, three-wide battle for the win,’’ said Johnson, who was among the three drivers vying for the spot, but part of a collision during it.
“It was a good show for the fans. This race is a big one to win.
“Our cars have had a lot of speed lately even though the results haven’t been there, Johnson acknowledged. “But there really is no quit in me, or this team and I think our cars are capable of running in the top five every week. We just need to focus on minimizing mistakes.”
Having announced that 2018 will be his final full-time NASCAR season, Elliott Sadler would certainly like to wrap up his successful career with another run at the Xfinity Series championship. And Saturday’s Lilly Diabetes 250 (3 p.m. ET, NBCSN, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) could be a pivotal race in Sadler earning a second consecutive “regular season” crown along the way.
Sadler’s JR Motorsports teammate Justin Allgaier – a four-time race winner this season – leads the championship by only 16 points over Sadler with two races remaining to set the playoff field. But when it comes to the historic and intimidating Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Sadler has shown himself to be most proficient on the championship team.
He won the pole position last year in his No. 1 Chevrolet and has two top-five and five top-10 finishes in six races at the Brickyard. He is looking to hoist his first race trophy since 2016.
Allgaier is on a competitive “roll” with 12 consecutive top-10 finishes, including three wins and an average showing of 4.3. He’ll need to tap into that vibe this weekend, however, as he has only a 21.2 average finish on Indy’s big track.
The seven-race NASCAR XFINITY Series Playoffs begin Sept. 21 at Richmond Raceway with the regular season champion receiving a 15-point playoff bonus as a sendoff.