Seven-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson was as calm and easy-going as usual walking around the Las Vegas Motor Speedway garage Saturday morning before qualifying for Sunday’s South Point 400 (7 p.m. ET, NBCSN, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
For the first time in his career, he starts the Playoff portion of the season from the “outside” – he missed championship eligibility for the first time in 16 years. And candidly, Johnson said, it has stung this week as he prepares for the first race of the Chase, without being among those eligible for a trophy.
“I had to distract myself,’’ said Johnson, who spent a couple days this week riding mountain bikes with old friends.
“Seeing everyone partying and doing burnouts on the strip, that hurt,’’ Johnson continued. “I want to be a part of all that and I should be. As I analyze that, I’m glad it hurts. If it didn’t hurt, I think that’d be a problem.
“I’m disappointed, but it was more than just what happened at Indy, there were mistakes all season that put us in that position, 26 races that we could have made a difference in. But we have 10 left and the optimism and excitement within the team is really inspiring and I’m excited and ready to go.’’
The upside is the confidence and motivation he feels going forward with a new crew chief, Cliff Daniels, and an especially determined No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet team.
“The growing relationship between Cliff and I, when he came on in Sonoma (Calif.) it was very apparent, there was just more there, and as he moved into that role, it’s continued to grow.’’ Johnson said of his encouraged viewpoint. “Cliff and I both – in a sense – have been raised by Chad (Knaus, Johnson’s former crew chief). And Cliff has a lot of those very important qualities that Knaus has. He’s just wired that same way. He goes about things a little differently but at the core, it’s that hard, intense, brilliant guy.’’