Did You Notice? … This coming weekend feels like Jimmie Johnson’s last stand? Three races remain in the NASCAR Cup Series regular season, and Johnson still sits on the outside of the postseason looking in. The future Hall of Famer, who once had 15 straight postseason appearances, sits 25 points below the cutline in his last bid for a record-breaking eighth Cup title.
Johnson’s position on the bubble also means he’s gone winless to this point. The last points-paying event he won was June 4, 2017, some 117 races ago. A man who once won 27 races during that same span now spends most races simply trying to crack the top 15.
But Dover International Speedway brings hope to the No. 48 bunch. It’s the site of Johnson’s last victory, a Monster Mile filled with monstrous performances from his past. He’s won there a NASCAR-record 11 times. His 3,110 laps led at the track are more than teammate Chase Elliott has led in his entire Cup career. In 36 starts, Johnson has failed to finish at Dover only twice.
It’s been a rough road for Johnson since that 2017 victory, though. He’s led just 10 laps at Dover in his last five starts there, putting together a mediocre average finish of 14.0. There have been no stage wins, and track position has been tough to come by (no top-10 starts) on a track where it’s difficult to pass.
But a doubleheader weekend of racing here is easily Johnson’s last, best chance for a victory in 2020 (Along with the playoffs to go with it). Two misses here, and the postseason comes down to a roll-the-dice superspeedway race at Daytona International Speedway. Johnson’s last superspeedway win was in 2013, and only five of his 83 career wins have come at Daytona and Talladega Superspeedway. He’s earned just one top-five finish in his last 19 starts total at said tracks.
Making the playoffs is critical to Johnson’s victory lane push in the final 10 races. NASCAR’s new qualifying system spells out that the first starting spots in each race are guaranteed for playoff drivers. At no time in the history of this format have the non-playoff teams been more marginalized.
That means, beginning next month at the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway, Johnson could start no higher than 17th. Even as the postseason continues, he’d have no chance to start higher than ninth until the championship finale (Most likely, even as drivers get eliminated, Johnson would have to scale mountains to start inside the top 15).
That’s important in a year where track position has been critical. A driver has won starting outside the top 16 just six times in the first 23 races. Just once has a winner started worse than 21st (Cole Custer at Kentucky Speedway). Add in Johnson’s lack of top-level speed to begin with and an 84th victory would feel near impossible.
It would open up the seven-time champ to unnecessary questions. Was crew chief Chad Knaus the bigger mastermind behind those title runs? Johnson hasn’t won a single points-paying race without him. Why did he fade faster than some of his peers? Kevin Harvick is the same age as Johnson (44) and is leading the points with six wins. It’s not due to lack of focus or athleticism; Johnson ran the 2019 Boston Marathon and remains in outstanding physical shape.
A win can do a lot to change the narrative in a driver’s final season. Jeff Gordon used his at Martinsville Raceway in the Round of 8 to salvage a disappointing year, riding it all the way to the Championship 4 in 2015. No one remembers Tony Stewart’s 2016 first-round playoff exit; they remember his thrilling Sonoma victory over Denny Hamlin.
At the moment, Johnson’s fizzle at the end of his career isn’t as bad as Darrell Waltrip or Richard Petty, both of whom struggled to even qualify in their final years. But I think few experts in the sport would have believed Johnson would fall short of Jeff Gordon’s 93 wins, third on the all-time list, back in 2017 or at the very least move up to fourth with 85 or more. It’s one of the more surprising drops in driver performance this century.
Dover is likely the final chance to change that downward trajectory before it’s too late.
Did You Notice?… NASCAR has had three drivers test positive for COVID-19 in the past month? Austin Dillon’s positive test before the Daytona International Speedway road course follows Brendan Gaughan (Cup) and Spencer Davis (Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series).
The trend is concerning as the playoffs near. Can you imagine a championship contender becoming ineligible due to catching the virus? And what if one of those infected winds up seriously ill? Thus far, NASCAR has avoided a more serious case of the illness other athletes, like Major League Baseball’s Freddie Freeman, have suffered through.
The way the sport works makes it near impossible to create some sort of “bubble” system that has proven successful in both the NBA and NHL. (Unless, of course, you want to race at Darlington Raceway 10 more times. Not everyone would be opposed!) Travel to various locations leaves people more susceptible to the virus, as cases are expected to tick up considerably come September.
Dillon, in particular, faced criticism in recent days for testing positive after liking an Aug. 4 tweet that suggested COVID-19 was being used to rig the election. It’s a reminder that not everyone may have been taking the virus so seriously, even after Johnson’s positive test knocked him out of the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Austin Dillon has tested positive for COVID-19.
— Daniel McFadin (@danielmcfadin) August 15, 2020
That’s a mistake. Hopefully, the recent trends give drivers pause and remind them to buckle down on safety protocols. Not only do we want to avert tragedy, but it’s easy for a sport to be lulled to sleep.
Could you imagine what would happen if a major driver didn’t just miss a race … they got hospitalized? Or experienced serious complications? Opinion within the garage and in the public could swing significantly toward the sport shutting down, especially with the playoffs around the corner.
NASCAR has defied early expectations and done a phenomenal job in its successful return to the track. It’s a move that may have saved the sport financially over the short-term.
It would be a shame to see it all come crashing down this late.
Did You Notice? … Quick hits before taking off….
- There’s no way Austin Cindric and Chase Briscoe can be left in the NASCAR Xfinity Series another year, right? They’ve now combined for 10 of 19 victories this season. Clint Bowyer and Matt DiBenedetto, the most likely men they’d replace, have zero victories in Cup this year, respectively. It’ll be interesting to see what matters more in the coming weeks. Bowyer and DiBenedetto, both popular drivers with fans and the media, are valuable assets to the sport. Will their popularity trump young talent on the rise?
- Chase Elliott’s Hall of Fame father Bill just won once on a road course during a Cup career that lasted three decades. Chase has won four overall and three straight. Sometimes, genetics are not a good predictor of future talent…