When you’re a seven-time champion, you’re lucky enough to have fewer frustrating seasons than many of your peers. But at the same time, the level of excellence you’ve established means your frustration criteria is probably a lot different than other drivers’.
Jimmie Johnson is eighth among the eight playoff drivers in the third round of the Cup Series playoffs. After a mediocre day at Texas and a struggle of a day at Martinsville, Johnson needs to win Sunday at Phoenix if he wants an opportunity to chase a record eighth championship at Homestead next week.
There’s a significant case to be made that Johnson and his team are fortunate to make the third round of playoffs anyway. While Johnson won three of the season’s first 13 races, he’s gone winless since and is performance — relatively — cratered. He was 10th in the points standings when the playoffs began before the points were reset for the playoffs. And Johnson has only finished 10th or worse in the points once.
One of those seasons was in 2015, when Johnson had four wins in the season’s first 13 races. And one win over the last 26.
“I don’t know if this year versus maybe like 2015; that was a tough one on us as well with that rules package and trying to get speed out of our cars,” Johnson said Friday at Phoenix. “So, I’d say between 15 and 17, those have probably been the two most challenging years in my career at the Cup level.”
Phoenix used to be a safe haven for Johnson. It was a track he was really, really, really good at. Now he’s not as good. Since the track was redone in 2011, Johnson’s form has slipped. He’s led just 114 laps in the 12 races since the reconfiguration and all four of his wins there came before the redesign. He’s going to have to find a golden horseshoe to get a win on Sunday.
“It’s a pretty easy approach for us,” Johnson said. “We’re in a must-win-situation. We wish we were in a better points scenario, but that’s not the case. This team thrives on pressure and adversity and we’re certainly in the position right now. When we look at the last two or three races here, we’ve had very competitive cars and the effort was made this week to make sure we brought the best bullet, second to none, and I’m really proud of my team and the way that all of Hendrick Motorsports is working together to make sure that [Chase Elliott’s team] and the No. 48 car have their best chances to win here and move on and stay alive for the championship.”
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