7-time champ John­son look­ing for win at Indy to get into play­offs

The Fresno Bee (Sunday) - - Sports - BY MICHAEL MAROT

Jim­mie John­son wants to keep things sim­ple this week­end.

Win and he’s back in the play­offs. Any­thing else com­pli­cates his strat­egy.

The seven-time NAS­CAR cham­pion heads into Sun­day’s reg­u­lar-season fi­nale two spots and 18 points out of the 16-car play­off, putting him in dan­ger of sit­ting it out for the first time.

“Of course we’ll be aware (of the points), of course I’ll be fed in­for­ma­tion,” John­son said after Satur­day’s first Brick­yard 400 prac­tice ended. “But we’ve only dis­cussed how fast we’re go­ing to be and how ag­gres­sive we’re go­ing to be to win the race and not have to worry about points.”

John­son couldn’t pick a bet­ter venue to make this last-ditch run.

He’s one of five driv­ers with four wins on In­di­anapo­lis Mo­tor Speed­way’s 2.5-mile oval and if he reaches vic­tory lane again Sun­day, John­son would clinch a play­off spot and join Jeff Gordon as the only other five-time win­ner. Former For­mula One star Michael Schu­macher also won five times on Indy’s road course.

But this has not been the kind of season John­son en­vi­sioned.

After a 17-month vic­tory drought and a first-round play­off exit last season,

Hen­drick Mo­tor­sports split up the Cup’s long­est run­ning and most suc­cess­ful pair­ing by mov­ing John­son’s long­time crew chief Chad Knaus to Wil­liam By­ron’s team. Kevin Meen­der­ing, Knaus’ re­place­ment, lasted 21 races on the pit box as the strug­gles con­tin­ued.

In July, Cliff Daniels re­placed Meen­der­ing but lit­tle changed.

Aside from an exhibition race vic­tory at Day­tona in Fe­bru­ary, John­son hasn’t won since Dover on June 4, 2017. He hasn’t fin­ished in the top 10 since Day­tona on July 7 and has fin­ished 30th or worse three times in the last seven races.

But John­son comes to Indy con­fi­dent and hope­ful.

He fin­ished 19th at Bris­tol and 16th last week at Dar­ling­ton, pick­ing up eight points on Danny Suarez and Ryan Newman, who are tied for 16th, de­spite be­ing hin­dered by a crash in the fi­nal stage.

“We’ve had plenty of bad luck, that’s for sure,” John­son said.

Maybe Indy will help him turn it around.

John­son had the ninth fastest car in the first prac­tice ses­sion with a fast lap of 182.700 mph. Only one of the four driv­ers fight­ing for the fi­nal two spots, Clint Bowyer, had a faster car. He posted a top speed of 183.329.

Kyle Lar­son, two-time Brick­yard win­ner Kurt Busch, and de­fend­ing race cham­pion Brad Ke­selowski had the three fastest cars in the morn­ing. All three have clinched play­off spots and Bowyer will join them – if he holds onto the No. 15 spot, 26 points ahead of John­son.

“Stress­ful, stress­ful week­end,” Bowyer said. “There’s a lot of im­pli­ca­tions but it’s fun, it’s fun to feel this way. You don’t have this feel­ing and bear this pres­sure every week­end.”

Denny Ham­lin crashed hard into the fourth turn wall in the af­ter­noon prac­tice ses­sion when his No. 11 Toy­ota would not steer.

‘‘ IT’S A BIG DEAL BE­CAUSE IT’S THE LAST ONE, THERE’S MORE PRES­SURE AND TO ME, IT’S MORE FUN.

Jim­mie John­son

Flames came from the back of the car, which rolled to a stop near the pit row en­trance as smoke bil­lowed across the track. Ham­lin quickly climbed out and was taken to the in­field med­i­cal cen­ter where he was checked, cleared and re­leased.

Paul Me­nard, the 2011 Brick­yard win­ner, Ricky Sten­house Jr. and Erik Jones had the three fastest cars in the af­ter­noon.

John­son was 17th at 181.740 in the sec­ond ses­sion with Newman 22nd at 181.232, Bowyer 23rd at 181.207 and Suarez 27th at 180.785.

Suarez holds the tiebreaker over Newman be­cause of a third-place fin­ish at Texas and is try­ing to be­come the first Mex­i­can-born driver to make the play­off field.

Qual­i­fy­ing will be held Sun­day morn­ing.

“The only thing I can con­trol is my­self and I have to put my­self in the best po­si­tion to score points and fin­ish in the best po­si­tion to make the play­off,” he said.

“It’s a big deal be­cause it’s the last one, there’s more pres­sure and to me, it’s more fun.”

For John­son, the last two sea­sons have been any­thing but fun.

And yet if he can make up enough ground Sun­day, he would still be the only driver to qual­ify for every NAS­CAR play­off since the for­mat was adopted in 2004 – and still in the mix for a record-break­ing eighth se­ries ti­tle.

“That would be a heck of a story to tie Jeff with five here, to come through a drought,” John­son said.

“And all the things you want to write about and talk about, to sort of bring all that to a con­clu­sion.”

Jim­mie John­son

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