Just a few short years ago it would have seemed silly to think that Jimmie Johnson would ever be in a position that might lead to him missing out on the NASCAR Playoffs. But that is exactly where the seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion finds himself, for the second consecutive season, as the cutoff for the ten-race stretch that will determine the 2020 title looms. With four races remaining before the sixteen drivers who will compete for the sport’s top prize are finalized, the driver who has announced that he will retire from full-time competition at the end of this season is far from assured of making the cut.
Johnson is currently tied with Erik Jones for fifteenth in the overall NASCAR Cup Series standings. However, the California native is on the outside looking in as far as making the playoffs is concerned due to the fact that two drivers behind him in points, Austin Dillon and Cole Custer, have earned automatic bids by winning races earlier in the season. Johnson has not visited victory lane since June of 2017.
Johnson and Jones are 26 points behind William Byron as those three battle for the final remaining “at-large” spot in the playoffs. But the problem for any driver on or outside the playoff bubble is the possibility that another driver currently further back in the standings could win a race and gain an automatic bid.
Consider the variety of tracks remaining before the cut. There is a road course(Daytona) that no driver or team has experience on in a Cup Series car. There is a double-header weekend at the always dangerous ‘Monster Mile’ in Dover, Delaware. And the regular season finale will take place on the super speedway at Daytona where anything can happen right up until the checkered flag.
The possibilities of what can happen in these next four races are multiple.
For example, Michael McDowell, who is currently 22nd in the series standings, has won on a road course(Road America in 2016) in NASCAR Xfinity Series competition and he has raced in the 24 Hours of Daytona so he has familiarity with that track. Although it would be a surprise, a win by this Front Row Motorsports driver on the Daytona Road Course is not unthinkable, especially when varying pit and tire strategies could come into play.
Another possibility of a playoff buster could come on the traditional NASCAR track at Daytona. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has two career NASCAR Cup Series wins, one came at Daytona and the other on the similar Talladega Super Speedway. Again, a victory by this JTG-Daugherty Racing driver would be somewhat of a surprise but history shows that it can happen.
Furthermore, there are other drivers outside the bubble who could win at Daytona. Matt Kenseth has won there multiple times, Ryan Newman was leading this year’s Daytona 500 just yards from the finish line, and rookie Tyler Reddick has won Xfinity Series races at both Daytona and Talladega.
However, one thing working in Johnson’s favor is that his last win came at Dover where there will be two races before the playoff cut. And for that matter, this former champion has the ability to win anywhere on the circuit.
Of Course, Jimmie Johnson could still simply earn an invitation into the NASCAR Playoffs by scoring enough points to make the cut. However, there are a number of possibilities that could leave one of the sport’s all-time greats out of the hunt for a championship in his final full season.
Richard Allen is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association
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