Jimmie Johnson digging deep

Jimmie Johnson (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

JOLIET, Ill. – Jimmie Johnson will start what he hopes is a run to his eighth Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship from the 14th position on the grid in Sunday’s Tales of the Turtles 400 at Chicagoland Speedway (Sunday, Sept. 17 at 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

Believe it or not, that’s an improvement over Johnson’s 17.4 average starting spot in the 26-race regular season. Johnson hasn’t won a pole this season, and if he fails to do so in the 10-race Playoff, it will mark only the second time in his career the driver of the No. 48 Chevrolet has failed to claim at least one Coors Light Pole Award, the other being 2011, when he also won a career-low two races.

But Johnson is a glass-half-full kind of guy, and he knows no other team has approached the level of the No. 48 on the tracks that comprise the Playoffs. Accordingly, though starting 14th isn’t ideal, Johnson views it as a step forward.

“Of course, we want to be better,” Johnson said. “But it’s a step in the right direction. Starting on the seventh row is a lot better than where we’ve started recently. If we can move forward like we typically do in the race and get up in the top 10 or top 5, it can completely change the outcome of the race and get momentum going the right way for us.

“We’re digging deep. I think we’ve improved some. And it’s playoff time, and the weather is cooling down and fall is here—so it’s time for the No. 48 to get hot.”

Perhaps so, but after posting the 18th-fastest time in Saturday morning’s first practice session, Johnson had to cool his heels on pit road for the first 30 minutes of Happy Hour because the No. 48 Chevrolet failed pre-qualifying inspection twice both at Richmond (last week) and Chicagoland. After spending 30 minutes in the pit road penalty box, Jimmie Johnson was 24th fastest in Happy Hour.

If he’s to advance through the field as planned and start the Playoffs on a positive note, he’ll have to find more speed on Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway, one of three active tracks where the seven-time champion has never won.

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