Johnson had a flat right-rear tire early in the race on Sunday and had to make multiple pit stops to get the issue corrected. He ultimately finished 34th and fell from 15th in the standings to 18th.
Yes, seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson is now two places outside the 16-driver playoff field with just three races to go before the 2019 playoffs.
This is the NASCAR world we live in right now. Johnson has struggled to find speed in 2019, even relative to his three other Hendrick Motorsports teammates. Chase Elliott and Alex Bowman have each won races while William Byron — with Johnson’s old crew chief Chad Knaus — has been significantly faster.
Hendrick changed crew chiefs for Johnson two weeks ago ahead of Watkins Glen, and the two-race sample size isn’t nearly enough to start to make a judgement on the efficacy of the switch. But time is running out for Johnson to avoid missing the playoffs for the first time in his career.
Sunday could have been worse if Bowyer hadn’t crashed either. Bowyer went crashing on lap 138 shortly after a restart. Bowyer, now in 16th in the standings, finished 37th and scored three points — the same number that Johnson did.
“We have to get something figured out with these race tracks,” Bowyer said. “We are really fast by ourselves, practice and qualifying really well, in the top-five almost every single time but then we start the race and don't make the grip we need to compete. We definitely need to find some things out. You can talk about the bubble and worrying about points but I am way more worried about getting established and running up front at these types of race tracks. If you make the playoffs and can’t compete in it then what is the use?”
It’s a great question. If both Bowyer and Johnson get in the playoffs they’re simply going to be participants. Maybe they’ll advance a round or so, but neither will be a significant title contender barring a miracle. The money that comes with making the playoffs is, as of now, the important factor. Because there’s no real chance that either driver will win the championship.
Here’s how the playoff standings look after Michigan.
In with a win
Kyle Busch (4 wins) [29 playoff points]
Martin Truex Jr. (4) 
Brad Keselowski (3) 
Denny Hamlin (3) 
Joey Logano (2) 
Chase Elliott (2) 
Kevin Harvick (2) 
Kurt Busch (1) 
Alex Bowman (1) 
Harvick now has 14 playoff points. Do you want to bet against him making the final four at Homestead? We certainly don’t.
Busch scraped out a sixth-place finish and won the second stage of Sunday’s race while Truex was fourth and won stage 1. Denny Hamlin has been extremely fast recently as well and Chase Elliott finished ninth on Sunday.
Should make it without a win
Ryan Blaney, 654 points
Aric Almirola, 645
William Byron, 642
Kyle Larson, 624
Erik Jones, 623
Blaney’s playoff standing could be even stronger if he didn’t have to pit late in Sunday’s race for fuel. He gave up the third position to ensure he made it to the end of the race and ended up finishing 24th. That’s a 21-point loss.
In, for now
Ryan Newman, 569
Clint Bowyer, 559
Newman made a late pit stop during the final caution flag to ensure that he could make it to the end of the race without having to stop again. That turned out to be a good decision. Newman finished 12th and capitalized on the misfortune of both Bowyer and Johnson. Newman is now 16 points ahead of 17th and 22 points ahead of Johnson.
Outside looking in
Daniel Suarez, 553
Jimmie Johnson, 547
Suarez capitalized on Bowyer’s and Johnson’s bad days as well. He finished fifth on Sunday.
“It was a decent day for us,” Suarez said. “We had ups and downs. There was something wrong, a bad set of tires or something in that second stage. We couldn’t control it. The team was able to overcome that with good adjustments and they put me back in the game with track position and we were able to get a good result from there.”
Will he be able to stay ahead of Johnson and pass another driver to get into the playoffs? We’ll see.
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