For Jimmie Johnson, New Hampshire Motor Speedway was more than just a one-mile flat oval. Last Sunday, it was the highway to the danger zone.
Broken belts and resulting power steering issues relegated the seven-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion to a 30th-place finish in the Foxwoods Resort Casino 301. That result followed another 30th at Kentucky Speedway the week before.
What’s more, the New Hampshire fiasco put Johnson in real jeopardy of missing a Cup series Playoff for the first time in his career. Johnson is the only driver to have qualified for postseason competition in every year NASCAR has used a Playoff format, starting in 2004.
At New Hampshire, however, Johnson fell to 17th in the series standings, tied with Daniel Suarez and 17 points behind Clint Bowyer, who currently holds the final Playoff-eligible position. Remarkably, Johnson trails all three of his less-experienced Hendrick Motorsports teammates in the standings, with Chase Elliott and Alex Bowman already Playoff bound, thanks to race victories, and William Byron comfortably in the 12th spot.
For Johnson, there’s no need to mince words—the situation is dire.
“It was an unfortunate turn the last couple of weeks,” Johnson said ruefully during a conference call with reporters in advance of Sunday’s Gander RV 400 at Pocono Raceway (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). “I think, prior to those two weeks, we’ve really upped our performance and have been bringing more competitive cars to the track.
“We just have to keep evolving in that space, from the 48 specifically and then, I think, as a whole for HMS.”
In a broad sense, Johnson and Hendrick have yet to optimize performance under the higher-downforce, lower-horsepower rules introduced into the Cup series this year.
“There are some styles of tracks with the 550 (horsepower) rules package that suit us well and others that we need to work on. So we’re working hard and had things rolling the right way for a while, but then two unfortunate weekends have set us back.
“I’ve learned in this sport that you have to let things roll off your back. Monday, you dig in and learn your lessons from the weekend behind you, and you’ve got to look forward, let stuff roll off your back, be fully committed and fully focused on the upcoming weekend. That’s really the position we’re in and bring on Pocono.”
To rejoin the Playoff battle, Johnson will need a better performance than the No. 48 Chevrolet team achieved in the June race at the Tricky Triangle, where he started eighth and finished 19th.