Jimmie Johnson begins NASCAR playoffs in unfamiliar position… an underdog

LAS VEGAS – Jimmie Johnson is right where he wants to be this weekend — and right where he doesn’t.

For the seven-time NASCAR champion this is the time of year when golden things begin to materialize, with Sunday signaling the start of the playoffs, the thrive-to-survive format that has channeled his career’s finest moments.

He is back at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, where he has more cherished memories than any other current driver, with four Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series wins stashed in the back pocket of his Hendrick Motorsports No. 48 racesuit.

Yet Johnson didn’t want the start of 2018’s crunch time to come around like this, with a disappointing campaign having seen him flirt with elimination before squeezing into the postseason on the final weekend in the 15th out of 16 spots. His uncharacteristically mediocre results speak for themselves: a best finish of third with just two top-10 finishes since early June.

“I have gone through many emotions,” Johnson told USA TODAY Sports on Thursday morning. “I am kind of over the pain of it and the being pissed part. It is just a case of getting through it.”

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No other driver has won more NASCAR championships than Johnson — his tally of seven matched only by stock car icons Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt Sr. Somehow, Johnson found a way to tame the inherent unpredictability of the playoffs to churn out one success after another.

This time, the mentality is different. Now, he hopes the “anything can happen” randomness of the 10-race postseason will come into full effect.

This season, Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. have been out of sight at the top of the standings with a combined 17 wins, while Brad Keselowski comes in hot after taking the checkered flag the past two weeks. They will open the playoffs ranked first through fourth, respectively.

Johnson is a long way back, beginning the playoffs with a reset figure of 2000 (Busch and Harvick have 2050, which includes bonus points for race and stage wins). His first task is to survive the primary cut, three races in, after which the bottom four drivers will see their championship dreams evaporate.

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