Jimmie Johnson doesn't have a playoff spot locked up as the seven-time NASCAR champion prepares for rain-drenched Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the final race of the regular season.
Johnson is in a 48-race drought headed into Sunday’s Brickyard 400, and his Hendrick Motorsports team has been inconsistent all season. It has put him up by just 19 points over teammate Alex Bowman in the battle for 15th on the playoff grid. That should be enough to get Johnson into the playoffs, but a surprise 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 we will.”
Johnson is a four-time winner at IMS 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 June 4, 2017, at Dover.
“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 Colts, then a torrent of rain at the Brickyard. All activity was washed out Friday and Saturday, including Cup qualifying. The field was set by points with Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. lined up first through third.
The washout Saturday prevented teams from getting any track time before the race. The last race here was in 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. … Hopefully it will allow us to race harder.”
A victory in the regular season earns a driver an automatic berth into the playoffs, and 10 drivers have locked up spots: Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr., Clint Bowyer, Kurt Busch, Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski, Chase Elliott, Erik Jones and Austin Dillon. Four drivers — Kyle Larson, Ryan Blaney, Denny Hamlin and Aric Almirola — are locked in by points.
Kyle Busch and Harvick are racing for the bonus that goes to the regular-season champion. Busch needs only to finish 15th or better to win it.
Noon Sunday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, NBCSN