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‘Nervous’ Jimmie Johnson back at Dover hoping to avoid another rare mechanical failure

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Cheez-It 355 - Practice

WATKINS GLEN, NY - AUGUST 05: (L-R) Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe’s/Jimmie Johnson Foundation Chevrolet, and crew chief Chad Knaus talk in the garage during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Cheez-It 355 at Watkins Glen International on August 5, 2016 in Watkins Glen, New York. (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images)

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CONCORD, N.C. – Jimmie Johnson will enter Sunday’s Chase for the Sprint Cup cutoff race at Dover International Speedway untroubled by some predictions he won’t advance from the Round of 16 for the second consecutive year.

He also seems unflustered about the fluke mechanical problem that stunningly eliminated his No. 48 Chevrolet from last year’s NASCAR playoffs.

An axle seal failure relegated Johnson to a 41st-place finish last year at Dover, where he has a record 10 victories. Johnson said the team exhaustively evaluated the problem before reaching a helpless conclusion: The problem can’t be avoided.

“That’s one of the weakest parts of the car, and so much has evolved and changed but those axle seals,” he said Wednesday at Charlotte Motor Speedway during an event promoting breast cancer awareness and research. “They’re the same axle seals that I’ve ever raced on. We’ve all been nervous of them. Occasionally, you have a failure.”

Not that often, though. During his 15 seasons in Sprint Cup, Johnson estimates the $5 part has failed about a half-dozen times and never at such a critical juncture.

“There was nothing we could do,” Johnson said, pausing to smile. “Which is an answer that (crew chief) Chad Knaus does not like, as you can imagine.”

His team also might not like being tagged as a trendy pick among news media as an early exit from the Chase for the Sprint Cup. The six-time series champion, though, said he’s been oblivious to such forecasts and wouldn’t have disagreed with some of them until recently.

“No, I can’t say we’ve talked about it,” he said. “I haven’t heard or noticed (the predictions). In the summer leading into the Chase, I think we were fast enough to move out of the first round, but I wouldn’t have put us in championship-caliber position.

“I think we’re still building that way, and I feel right now in my heart that we can be one of the final four, but we still need some more work to go to (the season finale) and dominate the race and win as we think we’ll need to be the champion.”

After he and Hendrick Motorsports teammate Chase Elliott combined to lead 193 of 270 laps in the playoff opener at Chicagoland Speedway, Johnson believes Hendrick will put at least one Chevy in the championship finale.

“I have that confidence in how we’ve competed on a variety of tracks and the consistent speed we’ve had for the last two months,” he said. “It’s there. It’s just up to us to execute and get the job done.”

With an 18-point lead on 13th place, Johnson would clinch a berth in the Round of 12 with a top 10 Sunday and likely would be safe with a top 20. But after carrying a 27-point cushion into Dover last year, the pressure still remains.

“Man, when the Chase starts, you’re nervous every lap at every track,” he said. “There’s no way around it. There’s so much on the line. You build all year for this moment.

“Usually your past experiences cause you to be more nervous and concerned for whatever reason. So yeah, definitely nervous. Absolutely.”