For Jimmie Johnson, New Hampshire Motor Speedway was more than just a one-mile flat oval. Last Sunday, it was the highway to the danger zone.
Broken belts and resulting power steering issues relegated the seven-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion to a 30th-place finish in the Foxwoods Resort Casino 301. That result followed another 30th at Kentucky Speedway the previous week.
What’s more, the New Hampshire fiasco put Johnson in real jeopardy of missing a Cup series layoff for the first time in his career. Johnson is the only driver to qualify for postseason competition in every year NASCAR has used a playoff format, starting in 2004.
At New Hampshire, though, Johnson fell to 17th in the series standings, tied with Daniel Suarez and 17 points behind Clint Bowyer, who currently holds the final Playoff-eligible position. Remarkably, Johnson trails all three of his less-experienced Hendrick Motorsports teammates in the standings, with Chase Elliott and Alex Bowman already playoff bound, thanks to race victories, and William Byron comfortably in the 12th spot.
For Johnson, there’s no need to mince words — the situation is dire.
“It was an unfortunate turn the last couple of weeks,” Johnson said ruefully during a conference call with reporters in advance of Sunday’s Gander RV 400 at Pocono Raceway (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). “I think, prior to those two weeks, we’ve really upped our performance and have been bringing more competitive cars to the track.
“We just have to keep evolving in that space, from the 48 specifically and then, I think, as a whole for HMS.”
In a broad sense, Johnson and Hendrick have yet to optimize performance under the higher-downforce, lower-horsepower rules introduced into the Cup series this year.
“There are some styles of tracks with the 550 (horsepower) rules package that suit us well and others that we need to work on. So we’re working hard and had things rolling the right way for a while, but then two unfortunate weekends have set us back.
“I’ve learned in this sport that you have to let things roll off your back. Monday, you dig in and learn your lessons from the weekend behind you, and you’ve got to look forward, let stuff roll off your back, be fully committed and fully focused on the upcoming weekend. That’s really the position we’re in and bring on Pocono.”
To rejoin the playoff battle, Johnson will need a better performance than the No. 48 Chevrolet team achieved in the June race at the Tricky Triangle, where he started eighth and finished 19th.
Even though Grant Enfinger’s NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series lead has been trimmed from 54 to 34 points in the last two races, he’s not about to change the approach that propelled him to the top of the standings.
The driver of the No. 98 ThorSport Racing Ford was 16th at Chicagoland on June 28, ending a streak of eight straight top 10s. At Kentucky on July 11, he was 24th. But those two results aren’t likely to make Enfinger, who hasn’t won yet this season, race more cautiously.
“I don’t think we race conservatively,” Enfinger said on Friday at Pocono Raceway, site of Saturday’s Gander RV 150 (1 p.m. ET on FOX, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). “We really haven’t all year. But I don’t think we do anything differently, to be honest with you. We kind of control our own destiny.
“We’ve got a little bit of a points lead — not a huge one — but, really, at the end of the day, we’ve just got to keep doing what we’re doing, running to the limit of the truck and getting all we can get. Everybody on this No. 98 ThorSport Racing team has done a pretty good job of that all year.
“We’ve had a couple of hiccups the last couple of weeks, but nothing to really change our direction or anything like that. At this point, it’s business as usual.”
There’s another reason for Enfinger to race for wins rather than try to protect his series lead. With three races left in the regular season, it’s a remote possibility that three new winners behind him in the standings could lock Enfinger out of the playoffs.
A victory would be the definitive antidote for that nightmare scenario.
The math isn’t adding up for Todd Gilliland, but a victory in one of the next three races could transform the equation dramatically.
The driver of the No. 4 Kyle Busch Motorsports Toyota is eighth in the NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series standings, but five other competitors, including two behind him (Tyler Ankrum and Ross Chastain) already have locked up playoff spots with victories.
Given that Gilliland is 150 points out of first place and 100 behind Matt Crafton (currently in the last playoff-eligible position on points), his only realistic path to the postseason lies in winning a race.
To do that, Gilliland will have to translate early speed into a checkered flag. He has three chances: in Saturday’s Gander RV 150, or in subsequent races at Eldora and Michigan.
Last year, Gilliland qualified second in consecutive races at those three tracks, but his best finish among the three was fifth at Michigan. But that doesn’t discourage him from thinking he can win before the end of the regular season — even, perhaps, on dirt at Eldora.
“I think Eldora even — someone’s got to win there, so it can be me,” said Gilliland, who was second fastest behind KBM teammate Harrison Burton opening practice and quickest in Happy Hour. “We were fast at Michigan. We’ve got a fast truck this weekend. It just doesn’t drive real good.
“We’ve been working really hard, and, honestly, this weekend coming here ... Kyle Busch Motorsports, I think I saw on Instagram, has won the last four races here. So we’ve got a pretty good track record. We’re still trying to be that guy who brings it home this weekend.
“But with a bunch of young teammates, it makes it hard, because you don’t really know what to go off of. We trust each other as much as we can. At the same time, we’ve got to have our own feel for it and go forward with confidence.”
Teammates Burton and Christian Eckes are both 18 years old. Gilliland turned 19 in May.
By Reid Spencer, NASCAR Wire Service. Special to Field Level Media