DOVER, Del. — Jimmie Johnson was despondent in the garage, his Dover dominance and championship drive over.
With one, cheap part busted, Johnson was knocked out of the Chase.
The winningest driver in Dover International Speedway history, Johnson entered a first-round elimination race fifth in the standings and seemed a lock to advance. Just an average finish — at a track where Johnson has won 10 times — would keep him alive for a record-tying seventh championship for at least three more races.
Instead, Johnson’s No. 48 Chevrolet was forced off the track for 36 laps with a torn rear axle seal and his title shot was gone. He plummeted to 14th in the standings and was one of four drivers cut from the field.
A year later, Johnson returns to Dover eighth in the standings out of 16 Chase drivers and painfully aware that one flat tire, one ill-timed wreck could keep him stuck on six championships for another season.
“I think last year shows that you really can’t count on a race track always being kind to a driver or always working in their favor. It’s part of racing,” Johnson said Friday.
The Chase faces its first round of cuts Sunday and Jamie McMurray, Austin Dillon, three-time champion Tony Stewart and Chris Buescher are on the outside of the points cutoff. Martin Truex Jr. and Kevin Harvick have secured spots with Chase race victories and Johnson, Chase Elliott, Carl Edwards, Kurt Busch and Kyle Larson face serious risk of elimination with a disastrous race.
Johnson not only expects to survive the first round, he says he’ll be racing for the championship in the finale at Homestead.
“We can be one of the final four cars,” Johnson said.
Elliott, who made the Chase in his rookie season, said Hendrick would be represented with a championship contender in the finale.
“I 100 percent think our group or Jimmie’s group could make it,” Elliott said. “I feel confident in that. I think we’ve been fast enough these first two weeks to do it, but obviously you have to have some things go your way throughout this deal and you’ve got to execute your races and try to stay mistake free.”
Johnson won championships in 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2013, putting him one shy of matching Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt for most on the career list. The Hendrick Motorsports driver swept Dover in 2002 and 2009 and also won races in 2005, 2010, 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015.
Johnson won twice in the first month of the season — and no Hendrick driver has won again, falling behind the dominant Toyotas. Even with his spot as one of NASCAR’s greats secured, Johnson was rarely discussed this season as a true championship contender.
“In the summer leading into the Chase, I think we were fast enough to move out of the first round, but I wouldn’t have put us in championship-caliber position,” he said. “I think we’re still building that way, and I feel right now in my heart that we can be one of the final four. We still need some more work to go to Homestead and dominate the race and win, as we think we’ll need to, to be the champion.”
Johnson and Elliott combined to lead 193 of 270 laps in the playoff opener at Chicagoland Speedway. Johnson has finished 12th and eighth in the Chase races; Elliott was third and 13th.
Hendrick’s season was marred by the prolonged absence of Dale Earnhardt Jr. with a concussion. Earnhardt will watch Sunday’s Sprint Cup race from the pit box for the first time this season he exited the No. 88 Chevy in July.
“It’s great from a public perception that he’s coming and that people can really see how hard he’s working and then kind of tie that together with his recovery process,” Johnson said. “I’ve seen a lot of him and I know he’s dying to get back in the race car and eager to feel amazing again. I think he’s on a great road of progress right now.”
Jeff Gordon, a four-time NASCAR champion, will drive the No. 88 Chevy on Sunday and Martinsville. Alex Bowman will start the other six races.
Johnson starts eighth because rain wiped out qualifying and the field was set on points. The rain gave Johnson plenty of idle time at Dover — exactly what he’d like to avoid once the green flag drops on Sunday.
“We do know we need to finish and can’t be laps down behind the wall fixing our race car,” Johnson said.