Jimmie Johnson has become NASCAR’s forgotten man.
Amid the dominance of Martin Truex Jr., the emergence of Kyle Larson and the impending retirement of Dale Earnhardt Jr., Johnson has faded into the background of the Monster Energy Cup playoffs.
That could change this week.
Johnson, despite sitting in a precarious position of eighth in points, can ensure passage into the Round of 8 by winning Sunday’s Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway, the final race in the second stage of the playoffs and a track where he has won a record-tying three times.
Johnson, the defending series champion, is also in pursuit of his eighth Cup championship, which would break a tie with Hall of Famers Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt for the most in history.
Not that Johnson is counting.
“I’ve never honestly been driven by stats, and I’ve said it so many times, but it’s hard to ignore where I sit on the wins list and not let my competitive spirit kick in and want more,” said Johnson, who has won three races in 2017 and whose 83 career wins rank fifth all-time.
“Certainly, I would love to climb further up the ladder there. Eight championships, I would love to stand alone at that, but that is all predictable and easy stuff. For me, it’s really about racing. I just love to race.”
That love for racing is one reason Johnson, 42, recently signed a three-year contract extension with Hendrick Motorsports, the only organization he has competed for at the Cup level.
“The experience I have with my engineers, with my team, with (crew chief) Chad Knaus, that bond and that experience combined with the experience of driving and competing …” Johnson said. “There is a high in that, that I’ve chased my entire career.
“That is still why I get in that race car. Someday when that fades, that is when I will step down. It’s not going to be because of stats and where I rank or how many championships I have, it’s all about that experience in the car. That experience is as cool as it’s ever been and I’m really enjoying it right now.”
Not everyone is rooting for Johnson, the only active driver with multiple championships, to overtake The King and the Intimidator.
“There’s a little sliver of me that doesn’t want Jimmie to win eight,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. said a few weeks ago. “I like that Jimmie tied him because I see him and my father more as equals. I think Jimmie is definitely in the conversation of the greatest driver that’s ever been in the sport. Now, I’m biased because I think my dad’s awesome.”
Johnson understands how his Hendrick Motorsports teammate feels.
“I know Junior was really proud of me and excited for me to pass his dad on the wins list,” Johnson said. “And I completely get it that Dale Senior’s fan base and his son and his family … why would they want anybody to outdo him in championships?
“And I’m sure on the King’s side, it’s the same way. So, I totally get it. At the same time, I totally get that I want to be the best and win. So, there’s a mutual respect there and understanding that exists. “
While Johnson hasn’t won since June 4 at Dover, a span of 18 races, he experienced a similar summer swoon last year before catching fire in the playoffs and vaulting from eighth early in the postseason to taking the checkered flag in the season finale at Homestead and winning No. 7.
It’s possible Johnson can advance to the Round of 8 even if he does not win on Sunday. One way he can clinch a spot is if locked-in drivers Truex or Brad Keselowski or a non-playoff driver wins while Johnson accumulates 49 points through his finish and stage points.
Johnson is the only driver who has qualified for NASCAR’s post-season every year since the format was introduced in 2004. If that string ends on Sunday, he’ll have at least three more opportunities to win his eighth championship.
“We will see how these three years go,” he said, “and certainly from my standpoint, I hope to collect another big trophy and then lots of other race trophies along the way and have some fun.”