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Legendary Johnson Calm despite Win-or-Bust Playoff Scenario at Brickyard

He returns to the site of so many special memories, where Brickyard legend Jimmie Johnson has won four times but desperately needs to win once again.

Indianapolis Motor Speedway wouldn’t be his first track choice to save this Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season teetering on the brink — the Hendrick Motorsports driver says he’d prefer Dover — but Johnson is traditionally fast and usually in the hunt as a celebrated four-time winner of the Big Machine Vodka 400 at the Brickyard powered by Florida Georgia Line.

The race Sunday to decide the final two Cup postseason spots is an undeniably unique situation. Johnson, a seven-time champion, has made the Playoffs in each of the 15 years of its existence but is on the outside looking in. He’s 18th in the points, 18 behind Daniel Suarez, who is tied for 16th with Ryan Newman but has the tiebreaker edge.

Johnson must drive the No. 48 Ally Chevrolet to Victory Lane to extend his playoff streak or his chances are slim.

“Yeah, that would be a heck of a story, to tie Jeff (Gordon) for five (Brickyard wins) here, to come through a drought, and all of the things that we all know that you guys have had to write about and I’ve had to talk about, to have all that come to a conclusion and lock myself in, that would be one hell of a story,” Johnson said Saturday. “Hopefully, that is the story.”

No win, and he has to hope that another driver who needs that automatic berth doesn’t prevail instead. Johnson would then need to finish near the front while Clint Bowyer, Suarez and/or Newman end up at the back.

“Of course, I’m going to be aware,” he said of the contenders. “Of course, I’m going to be fed information. We’ll just see how it unfolds, but it’s pretty simple with just a couple of guys to worry about, and I know that I need a lot of points in one afternoon.

“We’ve only discussed about how fast we’re going to be and how aggressive we’re going to be and all the things that could hopefully lead to a victory and just eliminate any need for points. We know that the best plans don’t always play out. We’ll see how it plays out. There will be some information coming in at times, but hopefully we have a fast enough car that we don’t have to worry about it.”

Johnson, a 43-year-old Californian, reiterated his affinity for IMS, where he won in 2006, 2008, 2009 and 2012.

“I don’t mind coming here at all,” he said. “I love the history of this track and love being here. Making a lap here is really special and a place all the drivers aspire to come and compete.”

But the reality is Johnson has been trying to fight through a prolonged funk. He’s winless in 84 starts dating back to early in 2017, which is a rather disturbing trend for a winner of 83 career races.

Johnson’s team switched crew chiefs in late July, bringing in Cliff Daniels to replace Kevin Meendering. Daniels, 31, was Johnson’s race engineer when he won his most recent Cup title in 2016, the last of seven titles shared between Johnson and former crew chief Chad Knaus. That’s led to a boost in enthusiasm in the garage of late.

“It’s not just Cliff alone, but the energy and brotherhood inside the No. 48 team and how bad the guys want to perform, they’re there when they don’t need to be,” Johnson said. “It’s pretty amazing to see the time and effort. All of that has added up over the last couple of weeks.

“We’re getting there. What I have learned through this two- or three-year drought and difficult time is just how important the team is. I’ve known it, I’ve lived it, and I’ve been the beneficiary of some amazing teams. I just didn’t realize how fragile it was until I got involved and had to start building that and help select the right people to put in place to build that team. It’s been an interesting journey, and through it all I’ve learned a ton. I really have. I think we’re in a spot now that everybody can see where the hard work has gone, and we’re starting to show up and perform.”

If he’s worried about his precarious plight, Johnson doesn’t sound like it. He’s endured it so many times before, overcoming challenges when others feared the worst.

Remembering moments like those help keep him calm now.

“Yeah, for sure, experience helps,” he said. “I have been able to work through some really tough situations and come out on top over the years. There’s no guarantees that will be what happens here this weekend, but I do feel like if that opportunity presents itself, the experience I have will help me stay calm and help me do the right things in that moment. It helps me sleep better, absolutely, knowing what I’ve pulled off in the past helps with my confidence rolling into this weekend.”

Visit IMS.com to buy tickets for the Big Machine Vodka 400 at the Brickyard Powered by Florida Georgia Line on Sunday, Sept. 8.

 
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