Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – LAS VEGAS, NV – Jimmie Johnson made a lot of eye contact with the reporters eager to gauge his Playoff expectations Thursday afternoon at the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs Media Day. The sincerity in his voice and the passion of his words left no doubt. He is as motivated as he has ever been to end a first of its kind season-long winless streak.
A championship run now would certainly change the narrative.
Johnson and Hendrick Motorsports teammate Alex Bowman have qualified for the 2018 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Playoffs that begin Sunday with the South Point Hotel and Casino 400 (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) taking the final two positions in the 16-driver Playoff grid. Their teammate Chase Elliott is also title eligible, securing his Playoff bid with a career first victory at the Watkins Glen, N.Y. road course in August.
First-year teammate William Byron didn’t qualify for the Playoffs but is leading the Rookie of the Year championship.
It’s an unusual position for Johnson, a seven-time Cup champion, who typically has already earned a high profile, high title seed by the time the Playoffs begin – with multiple race trophies already in hand.
“It would be a disappointing year if we didn’t win a race,’’ acknowledged Johnson, who is on the longest winless streak (49 races) of his certain NASCAR Hall of Fame career. “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.”
It’s been an uncharacteristic season for Johnson in all statistical categories. His two top-five finishes and eight top-10 showings are the lowest total in his 17-year fulltime Cup career. He’s led only 29 laps through the opening 26 races and his average finish is 17.0.
But Johnson is quick to assure that progress has been made. His No. 48 Chevrolet is a new body style, and to be fair – Elliott and Austin Dillon are the only Chevy drivers to win this season. Not to mention, Dillon’s victory in the season-opening Daytona 500 came on a last lap pass.
Johnson prefers to look ahead, not behind. And who could argue with someone who has 83 victories and a historic championship haul that ties him with Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt.
“I’ve never been stats-driven,’’ Johnson said. “It’s really been about the experience. I love being around people and working with my team. I love driving that race car.
“So, for me, I had a lot of years when I wasn’t very successful in my ascension to my time at Hendrick Motorsports. I fell in love with racing for my own reasons and it wasn’t because of trophies or fame or money. It was because of the experience I had driving the car and I’m still very much in that space.
“I’m not expecting anybody to say, ‘Oh, poor Jimmie Johnson.’ But I would ask people not to think that I’ve had enough and am ready to throw in the towel or that I don’t care or don’t want it. That’s just unfair. Anybody who knows me knows that I’m the opposite.”
For his part, Johnson’s teammate Elliott remains cautiously optimistic about advancing through the Playoffs. Boosted by his first career Cup victory, the 22-year old sees no reason not to feel good about his Playoff chances, even though he acknowledges the organization has struggled at times this year.
“It’s been an up-and-down year,’’ said Elliott, who leads the Hendrick team with eight top-five and 14 top-10 finishes.
“I feel like we started off kind of slow. But, to get a win and lock-in to the first round of the final 10 is nice, at least and see where it goes.
“I’m just excited to get this last stretch going. The summer months can be tough. The season is long. I feel like everybody kind of gets a last little bit of fire for these last 10 races and kind of resets. I’m ready to get going.”
Bowman, who drives the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, acknowledges it’s a challenging road ahead. However, he has earned some legitimate confidence, putting that car in the Playoffs in his first full season driving it.
He has a career best nine top-10 finishes and a pair of top-fives and has led 67 laps. Securing the final Playoff bid is an achievement. Advancing out of the first round would be high achievement.
“I think we have made pretty dramatic improvements from where we started the year,’’ Bowman said. “It’s too good of a company to keep down. We have too many good people and great resources. I think we will continue to improve and I think we can start off the Playoffs with some good runs.’’
“I think we can do as good of a job as anybody. We obviously have a great team behind us at Hendrick Motorsports, one of the best in the business. We have a lot of people working really hard and our cars have been getting better each and every week. We are just going to continue that and take it from there.’’
Johnson, who is the all-time winningest driver (four victories) at this week’s Las Vegas Motor Speedway venue, conceded that even a champion like himself can glean inspiration when needed. He’s won at least two races every season of his career – all but one previous season (2011) he’s won at least three races.
He remains optimistic about his Playoff chances and still smiles thinking of his last championship in 2016 when he won the Homestead-Miami, Fla. finale despite having his car taken off the grid minutes before the race for inspection and still working his way back to win the event.
He knows how to rally.
Reminded of the valiant way NFL veteran Aaron Rodgers lead his Green Bay Packers to a victory after the quarterback was hurt in the season-opener Sunday night, Johnson smiled and agreed about the powerful intangibles of heart and desire.
“I watched the game,’’ Johnson said. “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. 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.”