Johnson looking to play the survivor

TALLADEGA, AL - OCTOBER 14: Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe's Chevrolet, and his crew chief, Chad Knaus, stand on the grid during qualifying for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Alabama 500 at Talladega Superspeedway on October 14, 2017 in Talladega, Alabama. (Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images)

Jimmie Johnson knows he needs to do better at qualifying, but he’s not sure how to accomplish that goal.

The numbers don’t lie. Johnson’s average starting position through 31 races this season is 17.0. His previous low mark was 14.3 in his 2002 rookie year.

The mid-pack starting spots have had dire consequences. The seven-time champion’s lackluster efforts in time trials have translated to a career-worst average finish of 15.8. Though Johnson has won three times this season, he has finished in the top five only one other time.

Only one previous time in his career has Johnson failed to crack double digits in top fives. That was 15 years ago, when he posted six top-five results in his rookie season.

But the real negative of mediocrity in time trials manifests itself in stage racing. Starting from an average of 17th on the grid, Johnson has had difficulty accumulating stage points to any significant degree.

As a consequence, he’s eighth in the standings, fighting to retain a spot in the Round of 8 in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoff. It doesn’t help that the driver who is seven points behind him—Kyle Busch—has eight poles this season and an average starting position of 7.1.

That’s an average advantage of 10 spots over Johnson, or 10 points, to start every race. That’s why qualifying is number one on Johnson’s to-do list of areas to improve.

“It hasn’t been a strong suit of mine, and over the last couple of years, it has slipped even more,” Johnson told the NASCAR Wire Service on Friday at Kansas Speedway, site of Sunday’s Round of 12 elimination race the Hollywood Casino 400 (on NBCSN at 3 p.m. ET). “This year, we knew before the season ever started that the importance of qualifying was going to ratchet up and be two to three times more important, essentially.

“Even with all that awareness and the thought process and attempts to raise our qualifying performance, we haven’t yet. And we’re looking at every option possible. Again, here this weekend, I personally am trying to find the right rhythm that is needed out there on the track to put up that lap time. Through practice and the three rounds of qualifying, at some point I can sneak the speed out of the car and post a good lap, and for whatever reason trying to back that up or do it lap after lap, just haven’t been able to pull that off.”

It’s not that Johnson has neglected qualifying in preparing for each race.

“We’ve spent a lot of time focusing on it, and we’re almost to a point now where we overthought it,” he said. “Are we slowing ourselves down from overthinking it in some regards?

“We’re aware and trying hard and have been trying hard to get that right. Hopefully, we get it.”

As an added incentive, Friday’s pole winner at Kansas Speedway will earn the No. 1 pit stall next week at Martinsville, where the stall closest to the exit from pit road is a huge advantage.

But Johnson can’t worry about that now. If he doesn’t survive Kansas in the top eight, Martinsville won’t matter, where a possible record eighth championship is concerned.

Later Friday, Johnson qualified 13th for Sunday’s race.

“The thing I’m looking at is progression through the grounds and what we did over practice and that was all turning the right way,” Johnson said. “I think my effort level was kind of dialed-in a little differently today and a little better. Certainly, we want to be better than that. But, when I look at the fact that I out-qualified my teammates, we got faster through the rounds, starting closer to the front than we have in quite a few weeks, there are some good takeaways from today.”

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