Ryan: Finally reaching the Round of 8 will mean a chance at seven for Jimmie Johnson
CONCORD, N.C. – The silver-edged and black magnetic bulletin board with the handy brackets and snazzy magnets didn’t tell the full story while displayed in victory lane Sunday at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Jimmie Johnson’s name and No. 48 was listed on the first magnet slotted into one of eight slots below “Martinsville/Texas/Phoenix.”
Because of that trio, no one would have blanched if Johnson’s name would have been slid over to the next tidy collection of empty straight lines on the board.
Those represent the four championship contenders in the Nov. 20 finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
The six-time series champion undoubtedly will be among them after a three-year absence.
With his win in the Bank of America 500, Johnson qualified for the Chase for the Sprint Cup’s Round of 8 for the first time Sunday.
In reality, the Hendrick Motorsports superstar effectively clinched much more than that -- a shot at a record-tying seventh championship. Securing passage to the third round lays out like a layup for Johnson.
He has eight wins, tops among active full-time drivers, at Martinsville Speedway, the 0.526-mile that Johnson adores.
He also has six wins at Texas Motor Speedway, including four consecutive in the November race on the 1.5-mile oval where Johnson’s knack for tire management is supreme.
Phoenix International Raceway, the flat 1-mile track where Johnson has four wins and 19 top 10s, would be considered his “worst” of the lot.
After Auto Club Speedway, these are the three best tracks on Johnson’s resume when ordered by average finish (7.5 at Martinsville, 7.8 at Phoenix, 8.3 at Texas).
“I’m super excited from the simple fact if there is any driver you want to go into the third round with, I don’t know who else it would be other than Jimmie Johnson,” crew chief Chad Knaus told NBC Sports. “We’re very optimistic for the next segment.”
Leading his team (including the driver) with the single-minded discipline of a drill sergeant for 15 seasons, that’s as close as you’ll come with getting Knaus to size up the No. 48 Chevrolet’s path to the championship as a cakewalk.
But it’s an absolute firewall that will catapult Johnson into the championship round for the first time in the three-year history of the playoffs revamped with points resets, elimination rounds and expanded fields that make it more difficult to recover from a setback.
There have been whispers of whether the changes had “Jimmie-proofed” the Chase.
But Sunday reaffirmed it mostly was circumstantial that Johnson – who raced for a championship at Miami in every season but one from 2004-13 – hadn’t reached the championship round in the new era.
Remove an axle seal failure at Dover in 2015 and a flat tire at Kansas in 2014, and Johnson might be aiming for his ninth title this year.
“All we needed was an opportunity to make it to that final round, and we could have been competitive,” Knaus said. “When you have mechanical problem that’s unforeseen. Those things happen. It just does. It’s life. Racing is a tough sport. It knocks you back into reality in a heartbeat.”
There will be no rude awakenings anytime soon. Clutching a golden ticket to the Round of 8, a rare two-race respite awaits the No. 48 – along with the dread-filled 500-mile roulette wheel at Talladega Superspeedway, which was the first place Johnson went after his 78th career victory.
“I just took a deep breath and was like, ‘Yes, we did it,’” he said. “I don’t have to be worried about finishing at Talladega.”
It’s the rest of the Chase field that should be worried now – though Johnson typically wasn’t betraying any hint of overconfidence and presumption.
“We can’t sit back and celebrate too much,” Johnson said. “We’ve got to buckle down and get to work and keep advancing our race cars.”
A date with history at Homestead-Miami Speedway awaits – and is virtually assured.