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On brink of missing playoffs, pressure mounts on seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson – USA TODAY

On brink of missing playoffs, pressure mounts on seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson – USA TODAY
09 Aug
5:24
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In a span of a week, Jimmie Johnson spearheaded a midseason crew-chief change and then confronted a driver who later indicated that if Johnson wanted to fight, they could fight.

What in the name of Jimmie Johnson is going on?

The seven-time Cup champion very well could miss the playoffs for the first time since NASCAR initiated a postseason format in 2004 — that’s what’s going on.

Four races remain in the regular season, and Johnson literally sits on the bubble this weekend at Michigan International Speedway tied for the final spot with Ryan Newman.

Even last year, his final year with longtime crew chief Chad Knaus, where Johnson made the playoffs despite going winless, it didn’t seem as much of a three-alarm fire (Johnson’s words) as the 2019 season. Crew chief Kevin Meendering was replaced last week by Cliff Daniels, Johnson’s main engineer from 2015-18.

Daniels, who decided at the end of 2018 to come off the road, rejoined the team in June at Sonoma Raceway and provided pace, structure and feedback that Johnson desperately needed.

“The communication, knowing what Jimmie likes — he was Jimmie’s lead engineer — so I think it gave Jimmie some comfort,” Hendrick Motorsports owner Rick Hendrick said. “Kevin is one of the smartest guys in the garage, but you can’t replace time and years together, and I think that’s all Jimmie wanted.”

Johnson has spent much of the summer in Colorado, but he went to the Hendrick shop in North Carolina last week to talk to Meendering, Daniels, the team and media about the change.

“Emotionally, it’s tough,” Johnson said. “There’s no way around it. If you look at my personal life and dating and just everything, I’ve had long-term relationships. This isn’t something I’m comfortable with.

“But, in my heart I just felt like we will get back to our competitive ways faster and sooner with Cliff in that position.”

Johnson, who won five consecutive championships from 2006-10 then added two more in 2013 and 2016 — all with Knaus on the pit box — didn’t shy away from his role in the decision to change crew chiefs.

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“It certainly starts with upper-management and discussions there,” Johnson said. “This one was a little different, where we could sense and tell from some of the crew guys that it was something on their minds, too. So, honestly, it was more of a group decision than an individual decision.

“I certainly had to approve and had a big role in it. But I’m also scared to make big decisions like that on my own.”

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Johnson owns 83 career Cup wins but is currently riding an 81-race winless streak that ranks more than three times as long as his previous winless streak of 26. And since that last victory on June 4, 2017 at Dover International Speedway, the 43-year-old whose contract with Hendrick runs through 2020 has only recorded six top-five finishes in the equivalent of two seasons of racing.

He will own he is a part of the problem, but Johnson also believes he is part of the solution.

“I still feel like I’ve got it,” he said. “I still feel like I’m doing my job in the car. … A year from now, I might have a different opinion of myself and might say, ‘Hey, I don’t have it, so I’m handing the wheel over to a young guy and then let someone else have a shot at this thing.’

“But the amount of time and work and effort I’ve put into this, my heart and soul [are] in it, I’ve never worked so hard in the last five years to try to stay on top of my game.”

Some might say he’s grasping for magic that has disappeared forever. He got into a heated discussion with Ryan Blaney after Blaney turned him Sunday at Watkins Glen. Johnson admitted that his perilous points position added to the frustration.

“He is stupid, he just drove through me,” he said about Blaney’s actions and their discussion. “I don’t know what he was trying to say [to me]. His lips were quivering. He was scared [expletive] over there.”

Blaney’s response: “He said I was scared? Yeah, OK. He can think that. Did I turn away? No, I didn’t turn away. If he wanted to go, we could go.”

Johnson needs to put any feuds behind him as he competes Sunday for his second career win at Michigan (3 p.m. ET). He will rely on the youngest crew chief in the Cup garage to get him back to form.

And what if he misses the playoffs?

“Emotionally, if it happens, it happens,” Johnson said. “I know that I have given it my all. It won’t bother me as much as some of these other streaks have bothered me.

“You live and learn. I had a hell of a run for a long time. We’re trying to rebuild and get back and I do feel like we can get back on top of the sport again. It’s just going to take a little time.”

Bob Pockrass is a FOX Sports NASCAR reporter. Follow him @bobpockrass.

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Source: https://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/nascar/2019/08/08/jimmie-johnson-cup-playoff-bubble-new-crew-chief-pressure/1950487001/

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