DARLINGTON, S.C. â Good wasnât good enough. Jimmie Johnson needed to be great.
A 16th-place finish didnât do the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet any postseason justice Saturday at Darlington Raceway. Nor did it accurately represent Johnsonâs overall run in the Bojanglesâ Southern 500. Because for a majority of the 367 laps, Johnson did run in the top five or 10.
âGreat car. Great stops. Just bad luck,â Johnson said. âI guess I had 15 years of really good luck and the last two or three have been pretty bad.â
Especially on Lap 276, when the seven-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion got caught in a multi-car wreckÂ while running fourth. He never fully recovered after his left front took the brunt of the damage.
There were 86 laps to go when the field returned to green, with Johnson 13th.
âIt sucks really bad,â crew chief Cliff Daniels said. âAt that point, because the nose wasnât ripped off the car, I knew we still had a fighting chance to either get a lead-lap finish or a top-20 finish. Our day wasnât totally over. So, man, we kept fighting.â
Pit stops were the only reason Johnson ever made it back into the top 10. He was scored the leader with 43 laps to go but pitted himself three go-arounds later. Once everyone cycled through, he stayed put in the upper teens â and a lap down.
âItâs not the result we want,â Johnson said, âbut weâre definitely going in the right direction.â
Or at least staying stagnant.
Before Darlington, Johnson was ranked 18th in the championship standings â 26 points below the 16-drive cutline. The placement remains the same, but now 18 points separate him and the postseason with one regular-season race left at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
âItâs so hard and also unfair to put pressure on this race and the next race,â Johnson said. âWeâve had however many to get here and made a lot of mistakes along the way. It might come down to just a few points. You look at any race this year, we could have strung a few more points together.â
Johnson did earn the most stage points among the bubble drivers (Clint Bowyer finished sixth and ranks 15th; Daniel Suarez finished 11th and ranks 16th; Ryan Newman finished 23rd and ranks 17th). The HMS driver wound up with 13, finishing Stage 1 in second and Stage 2 in seventh. Bowyer got five from his sixth-place Stage 2 showing. Newman and Suarez didnât receive any.
Johnson also earned the second-most points total (34) in that group. Bowyer took the better mark at 36, while Suarez and Newman had 26 and 14, respectively.
Still, the gap between Johnson and the others was too big to close. Only tighten.
âI know that we actually ended up gaining just a little bit of points in the total picture, whatever that means,â Daniels said. âTo be honest, Jimmie and I have had a lot of conversations about it, and weâre just trying to methodically make sure weâre building this team the right way rather than stab and steer and try to go for a Hail Mary. Thatâs not always the best approach. Weâre definitely going to be methodical as we approach Indy, which is exactly what we did for here.â
And it almost worked.
Ten drivers have won a race this season, now including Erik Jones at Darlington. Theyâre all guaranteed a playoff berth. Kyle Larson, William Byron, Ryan Blaney and Aric Almirola then all clinched on points.
That leaves only two spots open.
âI didnât even know who won,â Johnson said. âIt is what it is. Weâre going to keep digging.â