Jimmie Johnson, the seven-time NASCAR champion, has zero victories and just one top-10 finish in seven races this season. He is in 21st place in the series standings heading into Sunday’s race on the half-mile track at Bristol, Tenn. And that has not even been the worst of it.
Johnson’s longtime sponsor, Lowe’s, announced last month that it won’t return next season. Lowe’s shares dropped in February after it reported disappointing fourth-quarter earnings and declining margins. Its competitor, Home Depot, backed out as a NASCAR sponsor in 2014.
Because Johnson is 42 years old and is in his 17th full Cup season, he was asked almost immediately if the end of his Lowe’s deal also meant the end of his driving career. Johnson said no, that he’d try to find another sponsor. Since then, he has finished ninth, 15th and 35th, the last finish coming after a wreck at Fort Worth.
For drivers like Johnson, it is getting late early. For Johnson specifically, an eighth championship would make him unique — maybe forever. You’d think most NASCAR fans would be interested in that pursuit even if Johnson is not their favorite driver, but things don’t work that way in this sport.
Johnson, you see, grew up in California. The two other drivers with seven Cup championships are Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt Sr. Both Petty’s and Earnhardt’s fathers raced stock cars, and Petty and Earnhardt grew up in North Carolina, NASCAR’s cradle. Johnson’s cool personality hardly fits into the weekly morality play of stock cars.
Johnson is pleasant and has a light, dry sense of humor, but he is neither as gregarious as Petty nor as bristly and intimidating as Earnhardt. Johnson’s crew chief, Chad Knaus, is well known for bending the rules, although you’d think NASCAR old-timers would love that.
But Johnson is an interloper, often booed during driver introductions. Dale Earnhardt Jr. won NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver award 15 times not because he was an awesome driver — he never won a title — but largely because he was Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s son.
The old-timers grumble, “NASCAR died when Dale Earnhardt did,” which means February 2001 — seven months before Johnson’s first Cup race. NASCAR is more competitive than ever, but Johnson is, to them, symbolic of NASCAR’s abandonment of its roots.
NASCAR’s contrived 10-race playoffs open with 16 drivers in contention, and Johnson is not so far behind the driver in 16th place, Ryan Newman, that he can’t make up the difference quickly. There are still 19 races remaining before the playoff field is set.
Ah, but wait! Here is the thing, Johnson-haters. All he needs to do is win just one of those 19 races to all but guarantee himself a spot in the playoffs. In one of the best rules changes NASCAR ever made, race wins are more important than points in determining the playoff field.
Johnson has won just seven races in 96 career starts at the next three tracks on the schedule — Bristol, Richmond and Talladega — but has won 11 of 32 races at Dover, which plays host to a race on May 6. Johnson won last year at both Bristol and Dover.
And Johnson has qualified for the postseason, which was first called the “Chase,” in every single season it has been held. It would be silly to write off Johnson even if he went into the last “regular season” race, the Brickyard 400 on Sept. 9, with no race victories or out of the top 16.
Hendrick Motorsports is not having a great year over all. None of its four drivers have won a race, and Alex Bowman, who took Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s place, is the only Hendrick driver in the top 16. Austin Dillon is the only Chevrolet driver to win a race this season.
Johnson’s chances of an eighth title might look cooked, but he is a top driver with a top crew chief on a top team. NASCAR, pushing its “Young Guns” narrative, might not like it, and neither would the old-timers, but a fierce drive for an eighth crown might kick up a little interest.
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