Johnson, Bowman And Stenhouse Among Those Vying For Playoff Spots In The Brickyard 400

Jimmie Johnson races to the inside of Trevor Bayne. [John Wiedemann Photo]

Jimmie Johnson races to the inside of Trevor Bayne in last year’s Brickyard 400. [John Wiedemann Photo]

By Dan Margetta

Speedway, Ind., Sept. 8—For the first time in its 25-year history, The Big Machine Vodka 400 at the Brickyard is the cut-off race before the NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series playoffs and coming into the event, fourteen of the sixteen playoff spots are filled leaving two spots open for those not locked in.

Ten drivers have locked down playoff positions by winning a Monster Energy Cup Series race this season with the rest of the spots filled in by points and currently seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson and his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Alex Bowman occupy the final slots while Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is the first driver on the outside looking in.

Of the three, Johnson is the safest as he would need to outpoint Bowman by 19 points should a driver outside the current playoff grid win and would clinch a spot if there is a repeat winner or any current playoff grid driver wins. It’s been an uncharacteristic season for the seven-time champion as he has yet to visit victory lane and is in the midst of the longest winless streak of his career, which makes the Brickyard 400 a key race to turn his team’s fortunes around.

“I couldn’t put into words what a win here would do, “Johnson said, “We have worked so hard and have had some good moments along the way that could’ve turned into great moments but mistakes on my behalf, the team, or whatever it might be, either bad luck or misfortune, we’ve just not been able to capitalize on opportunities that have been there plus we’ve had a tough year.”

“We are all still eager to turn it around and know that we will and a win is the way to do that, “Johnson continued, “ We’ve seen this team get hot at times and we’ve been unstoppable and a win would be the start of that and I’m hoping to get that done this weekend. This could be a big turn-around race for us. If we do our part I think we can have a shot at the end.”

“We just need to stop making mistakes, and I’ve been driving outside of my means and drove over the 100% level because I’m so eager to bet back to winning and get back to leading laps that I just try too hard.” Johnson stated, “We’re all human and I’ve made mistakes even when I’ve been at my peak, it’s all part of it but as you know the frustration of not being where I want to be makes you try harder and harder and Indy has been circled since we left here last year. “

“This is a crown jewel race and its one of the big ones and my optimism to turn things around is I’ll never give up, I just won’t,” Johnson reiterated, “I drive for Hendrick Motorsports and we will figure it out, it may not come at the pace we want it to, but we will figure it out and I’m ready…let’s go.”

Alex Bowman is in his rookie season and a birth in the NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series playoffs would be considered a tremendous success. Bowman clinches a spot as long as a driver currently not in the playoff grid doesn’t win on Sunday.

“It’s no secret it’s been a rough year for us, for all of Hendrick Motorsports, but we are still in contention for the playoffs so that’s cool to be a part of,” Bowman stated, “ It’s a pretty vulnerable spot to be in coming into Indy with three guys that have won here behind you in points that haven’t won yet, but I think we can get the job done just as good as they can. It would be great to be a part of the playoffs and hopefully we are in it and we can go from there.”

Persistent rain all weekend cancelled preliminary on track activities meaning the drivers will take the Brickyard 400 green flag without having any practice and Bowman feels that could be to his advantage.

“I really feel like we seem to run better when the tracks aren’t rubbered up for whatever reason so I’m all for just sending it to the race, “ Bowman said, “ I think that might actually be better for us but I don’t want to count my chickens before they hatch because I might jinx myself and then ‘Bad Luck Bowman’ will come out and somebody will win on fuel mileage or something and then we’ll be out.”

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is the first driver currently outside the playoff grid and must win the Brickyard 400 to make the cut. Like Bowman, Stenhouse also is not bothered by the lack of practice time.

“I always tend to feel like we are better off if we just line them up and race so I’m OK with doing that. “ Stenhouse stated, “This race last year without being a cut off race was pretty crazy at the end and I think now that it is a cut-off race there’s going to be a lot more strategies played and a lot more gutsy calls made, especially if there are some cautions at the end.”

“I think for one its pretty clear cut what we have to do, “Stenhouse continued, reflecting on the must-win situation he is in, “Throughout the race, we are not worried for each stage and are just worried about setting up for the end of the race because that’s all that really matters. I felt a lot better last year when we were locked in but this is part of the playoffs and we’re going to try to make a run.”

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