This was not how the playoffs were supposed to shake out for Jimmie Johnson.
Just consider everything he had going for him coming into the playoffs eight races ago. Three wins this season. Multiple other Top 10’s. And, of course, his playoff legacy of seven championships, tied for the most by any driver ever. If anyone could go on a playoff run, it’s Jimmie.
Except, well, that hasn’t materialized this year. It took a fluky engine explosion from Kyle Larson at Kansas to squeeze him into the third round of the playoffs. Then at Martinsville (Va.), where he’s won nine times before and had a good chance to win, he came in 12th. At that point, a Top 10 finish at Texas last weekend didn’t mean much. Which leaves Johnson where exactly?
“We’re in a must-win situation,” Johnson said Friday at Phoenix International Speedway. “I didn’t want to be in a position here to need points, because if you’re here needing points, you gotta win.”
And so now he must. Johnson’s eighth in the playoff standings out of eight remaining drivers, so not great. Even if he won both Stage 1 and Stage 2, and if he came second, he still might not advance to the championship at Homestead next week. It’s win or bust, win or go home. Win, or the chance at championship No. 8 – of staking his claim as the best NASCAR driver ever to get in a car – gets delayed another year.
So no pressure, right?
“We wish we were in a better points scenario, but that’s just not the case,” Johnson said. “This team thrives on pressure and adversity, and we’re certainly in that position right now.”
The question then becomes whether or not Johnson can realistically handle the pressure, whether or not he has a realistic chance to win this race. His supporters will say certainly, that counting out Jimmie Johnson in the playoffs is akin to doubting a Tom Brady comeback. You just don’t do it.
But his detractors will note that Johnson hasn’t had the same magic this year as in his past championship seasons. He hasn’t won a race since June 4 at Dover, or in more than five months. He hasn’t had the same spark, the same dominance typical of his cars. And, as even Johnson admitted, this has been (other than 2015) the most frustrating year of his Cup Series career.
The No. 48 team will roll out all the stops in the desert this weekend, and hope they can recapture the magic Johnson once had not only at this track (where he hasn’t won in more than five years), but also in the playoffs. There’s no leaving options on the table as far as making Johnson’s car faster.
And then come Sunday, we’ll see if Johnson steps to the pressure as he has historically, or if the dream of that eighth title becomes a dream deferred.
“Pressure can either make teams play tight or play free in those moments, and our team has shown over time that we can play, and race, and compete free,” Johnson said. “We’re not immune to it – we have our moments as well – but we’re going to have to fall back on everything this team is made of to win here this weekend and keep our championship hopes alive.”