Johnson, Kenseth on bubble as Kansas elimination race looms
KANSAS CITY, Kan. (AP) — Jimmie Johnson took time this week to drive the car pool for Hendrick Motorsports whiz kids Alex Bowman and William Byron, while Matt Kenseth joked last weekend about driving a school bus if he fails to find a ride for next season.
Both would be happier driving in hopes of a Cup Series title next week.
Johnson is in the eighth and final spot to avoid elimination in NASCAR’s playoffs as the series heads an elimination race at Kansas Speedway on Sunday. Kyle Busch is seven points behind him as the first driver out, while Kenseth is another point off the cut line.
“We’re a team and a group that thrives on adversity. Whenever we’re backed in a corner we always step up and deliver,” said Johnson, whose hopes of winning a record-setting eighth championship took a big hit during last week’s crash-filled race at Talladega.
Johnson was caught up in a 17-car melee with 16 laps to go, then his No. 48 team was parked for the rest of the afternoon when it prematurely began working on his car during the 12-minute red flag.
“During the week it’s easy to get frustrated, at the start of the week, reliving what happened,” he said. “But that’s part of pro sports and the position I’m in, chasing my eighth championship.”
If the pressure is getting to Johnson, he isn’t letting on.
The cool Californian posted a selfie of himself and his future teammates on Instagram on Wednesday, showing the 42-year-old Johnson in the driver’s seat and 24-year-old Bowman and 19-year-old Byron hanging out in back. His caption: “Just taking the kids to lunch.”
“The funny part was being in car seats,” joked Byron, who tops the Xfinity playoffs heading into Saturday’s race at Kansas. “That was cool to spend time with him, pull from his knowledge, see how he was going to approach this weekend. It seems like he’s really ready to go.”
Looking at his cheesy grin, you’d never guess how much of a struggle this year has been. Johnson hasn’t had a top-five finish since winning at Dover in June, and has led just five laps in his last 14 races.
“The speed department has been a little tough on us,” he said. “We’ve been frustrated through the summer months and that yielded poor results, but we’ve been on the right track the last few weeks.”
Kenseth is likewise optimistic heading to Kansas, where Toyotas in general and his Joe Gibbs Racing team specifically have experienced plenty of success over the years. He has won twice at the 1.5-mile oval and led 116 laps en route to finishing ninth a year ago.
But while Johnson has at least been running up front, Kenseth is still alive in the playoffs only because of his consistency. He rarely has a bad afternoon, but he hasn’t won since July 2016.
“There’s only five races left, last race of the round. We’re kind of running out of races this year,” Kenseth said. “Obviously winning has been important to us and we haven’t been able to do that in a year and a half. But having said that, we can’t run well here, we can’t run anywhere. This has always been one of my better race tracks from a driver standpoint.”
The fact that Kenseth hasn’t won is a big reason why Gibbs is turning the No. 20 over to Erik Jones next season, forcing the 2003 champion to muse about driving a school bus next year.
“That was 95 percent a joke,” he said Friday.
Kenseth makes no excuses for his career situation, just as he doesn’t make any excuses for being on the playoff bubble. He understands his team had plenty of opportunities to win stages and finish near the front of races, both of which would have improved his playoff positioning.
“You have all year to collect all those points and we didn’t do a very good job,” he said. “If we don’t run good Sunday, we don’t deserve to be in the next round anyway.”
Johnson and Kenseth aren’t the only former champions under pressure this weekend.
Busch’s hopes of winning a second title in three years also hinge on Kansas, where the Gibbs driver has become a consistent top-five finisher. And unlike Johnson or Kenseth, Busch has run up front all season, and he’s only in elimination danger because of poor finishes at Charlotte and Talladega.
“We just have to do a good job,” Busch said. “We have to come through this race — it’s not a must-win, but it’s a must-perform. We have to go in there and do everything right.”
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