It won’t take a miracle for Jimmie Johnson to miss the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs for the first time in his career.
No, all it could take—potentially—is a continuation of the rotten luck and spotty execution that has mired the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team in mediocrity over the past 11 races.
Sunday’s Bojangles’ Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway was emblematic of Johnson’s recent struggles, not to mention a paradigm for Murphy’s Law. After running fifth in the first round of knockout qualifying on Saturday, Johnson scraped the outside wall in the second round and had to settle for the 20th starting position.
Unapproved adjustments to his car before the race, however, sent the seven-time series champion to the rear for the opening green flag. Johnson made rapid progress in the early stages of the race. On Lap 22, he passed Ryan Blaney for the 19th position.
After the first round of green-flag pit stops cycled out on Lap 54, Johnson was running 14th. That’s when the evening began to go horribly wrong. On Lap 60, Johnson returned to his pit stall with a loose wheel. To compound the issue, he ran too wide at the entrance to pit road and drew a pass-through penalty for a commitment line violation.
Johnson spent the rest of his time on track two laps down, until an oil pump failure knocked him out of the event after 227 of 367 laps. The resulting 39th-place finish added one point to Johnson’s total in the series standings, leaving him within striking distance of teammate Alex Bowman.
Johnson left Darlington 14th in points, 19 ahead of Bowman. Because Daytona 500 winner Austin Dillon is locked into the Playoffs with that victory—despite his 18th-place position in the standings—there are only two Playoff spots left to be settled in Sunday’s Big Machine Vodka 400 at the Brickyard (2 p.m. on NBCSN, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
A four-time winner at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Johnson can guarantee a berth in the Playoffs by scoring 37 points or more. If Bowman wins the race and passes Johnson in the standings, Johnson is still locked in.
But there’s a lot that can still go wrong. Bowman gained 13 points on Johnson at Darlington. If he beats Johnson by 20 points or more at Indy, that puts Johnson squarely in the danger zone. Why? Because four of the last eight winners at the Brickyard are lurking behind Johnson and Bowman in the standings, and a repeat victory by any one of them would eliminate either Johnson or Bowman—guaranteed.
In 2010, Jamie McMurray, then in a contract year, won the Brickyard 400 during his most successful season in Cup racing. Currently 21st in points, McMurray hasn’t had the same level of performance as Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Kyle Larson, but his cars have the potential for speed. And with NASCAR silly season in full swing, McMurray has every reason to be up on the wheel.
Paul Menard, 19th in points, won his first and only Cup race at Indy in 2011. That win came out of nowhere, preceded by consecutive 24th-place runs at Kentucky and New Hampshire. Could lightning strike twice for the driver of the No. 21 Wood Brothers Ford?
Ryan Newman, 17th in points, was an upset winner at the Brickyard in 2013, collecting his only victory of the season and one of two in the last six seasons. Newman’s only path to the Playoffs lies in winning on Sunday.
Kasey Kahne, 27th in points, won last year’s race in double overtime after Johnson wrecked in a three-wide battle for the lead (with Kahne and Brad Keselowski) on the final lap of regulation. Kahne was driving Hendrick equipment at the time, a spot now held by Sunoco Rookie of the Year contender William Byron.
And that brings us to another interesting wrinkle. Byron is 22nd in the standings, with a win-or-bust mentality entering the Brickyard 400. Last year, at 19 years, 7 months and 23 days, Byron became the youngest winner of a NASCAR race at Indy when he took the checkered flag in the Xfinity Series event.
A breakthrough win by Byron in the Cup race would knock one of his teammates out of the Playoffs. So the races within the race on Sunday could involve Johnson vs. Bowman, or potentially Johnson vs. Bowman vs. Byron.
In a real sense, Johnson and Bowman are on an island. The 13 drivers ahead of them are locked into the Playoffs and can’t be displaced. The 16th-place driver, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., can’t catch Bowman on points from 68 behind.
The only way either Johnson or Bowman could be “voted off” the island and out of the Playoffs comes with an unexpected victory by a driver behind them in the standings.
In Bowman’s case, that’s unlikely, given that wins in 24 of the 25 races so far have come from drivers in the top 13 in the standings, the only exception being Dillon. In Johnson’s case, it’s a shoot-the-moon long shot, given that the seven-time champ also would have to finish 20 or more points behind Bowman in the race.
But quirky results have come at the Brickyard in four of the last eight years. So until the race is over and the Playoffs are set, both Bowman and Johnson will have a reason to sweat that doesn’t have anything to do with the temperature inside their Chevrolets.