Getting Jimmie Johnson into Playoffs is Hendrick priority

INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA - SEPTEMBER 07: Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Ally Chevrolet, drives during practice for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Big Machine Vodka 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on September 07, 2019 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Matt Sullivan/Getty Images)

There’s no doubt what’s at top of mind at Hendrick Motorsports entering Sunday’s Big Machine Vodka 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway (2 p.m. ET on NBC, IMS and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

Getting seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson into the Playoffs is the No. 1 priority for the organization, which already has three of its four drivers—Chase Elliott, Alex Bowman and William Byron—qualified for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series postseason.

“Me personally, I want to see him get in,” said Elliott, who won at Talladega and Watkins Glen this season. “I’m a race fan first, and I want to see him do well. I’m certainly pulling for him to do that, but there is a lot of emphasis to make sure he has a fast car.

“That’s the best way to fix it, to be fast. If they are fast today, that is the main thing. Your job gets a lot easier for the weekend.”

Mission accomplished, as far as the first order of business was concerned. Johnson was fast off the truck for opening practice at the 2.5-mile speedway. He was on top of the speed chart until late in the session, when other drivers began making mock qualifying runs.

After the dust settled, Johnson was ninth fastest, with a best time of 49.261 seconds (182.700 mph).

Though the speed was encouraging, Johnson faces an uphill battle if he hopes to preserve his perfect record of qualifying for every Cup postseason. Johnson is 18 points behind Ryan Newman and Daniel Suarez, who currently are tied for 16th in the standings, the final Playoff-eligible position.

Johnson said his No. 48 team has been doing a more thorough job of preparation, but it hasn’t been confined to the week before the trip to the Brickyard, where Johnson has won four times, one fewer than the record five of former teammate Jeff Gordon.

“There has been more preparation, but it really hasn’t been because of the week,” Johnson said. “It’s been since Cliff (Daniels) took over as crew chief (in late July). There are more hours and more time…. We had a Saturday night race recently, and (team members) were asked not to come to the shop, and it’s not just Cliff alone, but the energy and the brotherhood inside of the No. 48 team and how bad the guys want to perform. They are there when they don’t need to be. They’re there when they’re asked not to be.

“So, it’s pretty amazing to see the time and effort. And all of that has added up over the last couple of weeks, where our guys have been able to spend more time on the car that we brought here. So it’s hard to just look at any given week and say ‘Hey, we’re going to do more,’ because you don’t have the time. The truck’s got to load and leave and all that stuff. But, weeks back, things started clicking, which have allowed really every car that’s gone to the track in the last three or four weeks to have more detail and more time spent on it.”

With the speed in his car, Johnson at least has a hope of making the Playoffs on points, but the definitive path would be a fifth victory at the Brickyard. Eighty-four races have passed since Johnson last went to Victory Lane at Dover in 2017.

“Yeah, it would be a heck of a story to tie Jeff with five here and to come through a drought and all the things that we all know,” Johnson said. “You guys (media) had to write about it and talk about it. To have all that come to a conclusion and lock myself into the Playoffs would be one hell of a story. Hopefully, that is the story.”

Greg Engle