For the first time since it began nearly 16 years ago, the postseason in NASCAR’s top-level Cup Series will run without one of the most successful drivers in series history in contention for the title: seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson.
That’s not only a big deal for Johnson, but for NASCAR. He was, according to stats on Motorsport.com, the last driver left to have qualified for every Cup Series postseason since the concept’s 2004 inception. (Before then, they just ran a whole season and tallied up the points at the end. What a concept.)
Johnson, who turns 44 later this month, went into the final regular-season race of the year at Indianapolis Motor Speedway just a few points out of a spot in the recently overhauled 10-race, 16-driver elimination playoffs. He either needed to make up that tiny deficit to qualify on points or win the race, which, aside from a few caveats, automatically qualifies a driver for the postseason.
Johnson did neither, courtesy of a wreck just over 100 laps into the 160-lap race. It took him from hovering around the playoff bubble to immediately out of the picture, breaking the playoff streak for himself personally and for the series.
The playoffs begin at Las Vegas Motor Speedway next weekend with Kyle Busch leading the playoffs field, which will include 16 of the 38 points contenders in the Cup Series. Four will be eliminated after each round, leaving four drivers at the end to race for the title in a single event at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Johnson recognized that it wasn’t just the Indianapolis wreck that barred him from the playoffs, but the position he was in at the race due to his performance leading up to it. He said it was “disappointing” to have that happen, but that “a bad 25 races” leading up to the final race of the regular season, Indianapolis, made him “need a stellar day.” He looked to be having one, until the wreck.
Johnson has an almost supernatural ability to stay calm on camera, though, and summed up his first playoffs miss by saying he thinks it’s “pretty impressive the run [his team has] been on to be in the playoffs for this many consecutive years” and that his goal is now to win a race before the season is over.
It might be the end of a long streak, but all streaks have to end somewhere.