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The Journal Gazette

  • Associated Press Joey Logano's car is pushed though the garage area as rain dealyed the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Sunday, September 09, 2018 1:00 am

Playoffs no sure thing for Johnson

Has slim lead as regular season ends today

JENNA FRYER | Associated Press

INDIANAPOLIS – Jimmie Johnson doesn't have a playoff spot locked in as the seven-time NASCAR champion prepared for rain-drenched Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the final race of the regular season.

Johnson is in a 48-race losing streak headed into the Brickyard 400 and his Hendrick Motorsports team has been inconsistent all season. It's put him up by just 19 points over Hendrick Motorsports teammate Alex Bowman in the battle for the 15th position on the playoff grid. That should be enough to get Johnson into the playoffs, but a surprise race winner could jumble the final berths.

“We've had a tough year,” Johnson said Saturday. “It's been extremely frustrating and extremely difficult to live through, but we are all still very eager to turn it around and know that we will.”

Johnson is a four-time winner at Indianapolis and even in a crummy season, he doesn't discount how quickly things could flip for the No. 48 team. Johnson won his seventh title in 2016 and despite three wins last season, he peaked in the first quarter of the year and was 10th in the final standings. His last victory was at Dover on June 4, 2017.

“A win is the way to turn it around,” Johnson said. “We've seen this team get hot at times and we've been unstoppable. A win would be the starting point.”

NASCAR moved the regular-season finale this year to Indianapolis as officials from the sanctioning body and the track tried to make the Brickyard a bigger draw. The race has struggled for much of the last decade in its traditional summer slot in part because of heat, lack of on-track action and low stakes. As the 26th race on the schedule, though, the show has increased meaning because it will finalize the 16-driver playoff field.

But expectations have been doused, first by the NFL scheduling a home game across the city for the Indianapolis Colts. Then a torrent of rain disrupted all activities at the Brickyard Friday and Saturday, including Cup qualifying. The field was set by points with Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr., the so-called “Big 3” this season, lined up first through third.

The washout Saturday prevented teams from getting any track time prior to the race and all will start today with setups based off notes. But all previous experience was during July, when the temperature made the surface of the track hot and slick. The move to September should favor drivers, particularly as they adjust their cars.

“Temperature just really makes the track less or more forgiving ... and it's so less forgiving when we're here in July and it feels like 150 degrees,” Johnson said. “When I look at our practice sessions that are usually in the morning when we were here in July, the cars drive better. It's easier to tune them. In the morning qualifying sessions, cars drive a lot better. I feel that same trend will happen and hopefully it will allow us to race harder with one another since the cars are driving better.”