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Jimmie Johnson grinds out another round in playoff push chasing record eighth title

George Diaz: Jimmie Johnson grinds out another round in playoff push chasing record 8th title
Jimmie Johnson waves to fans at Texas Motor Speedway on April 9.
(Brandon Wade / TNS)

You may remember Jimmie Johnson.

Seven-time NASCAR Cup champion and one of the last men standing in contention to become the signature face of the sport after Dale Earnhardt Jr. retires at the end of this season.

Winning a record eighth Cup title and surpassing two giants of the sport — Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt — would provide a nice push regarding the #GOAT marketing plan.

If that title comes in 2017, Johnson’s eighth sip of the championship champagne will involve a story of grinding it out week by week. Those were the circumstances in Kansas last weekend when Johnson rallied for an 11th-place finish despite a pair of spins.

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One of them included a slide into the front-stretch grass, a better place to be than the carnage all around him as Johnson avoided the “Big One” involving 14 cars on Lap 197 of the race.

And so, despite the lack of style points, Johnson moved into the Elite Eight, joining Martin Truex Jr., Brad Keselowski, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Ryan Blaney and Chase Elliott in advancing to the third round of the playoffs, which begins at Martinsville Speedway on Sunday. Then it’s on to Texas and Phoenix to set the final four for the championship race on Nov. 19 near Miami.

“Spun out twice and thankfully didn’t hit anything too hard,’’ Johnson said.

Johnson isn’t the favorite — say hello to Mr. Truex — but there’s that X-factor of a champion. Johnson has been there and done that. And that counts for something. A lot, actually.

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“Yeah, this year’s format definitely doesn’t fit my natural tendency in a car and kind of what our team has earned seven championships through,” Johnson said last month in New Hampshire. “So we felt like, without a doubt, this is going to challenge us more than any other format in our history in the sport. I think it’s kind of shown that to be true.”

The new format, with bonus points for stage victories during a race, doesn’t favor Johnson’s M.O. as a hard-knock grinder who runs with the pack leaders, but isn’t necessarily up front all the time.

“That is just the reality of it and it’s forcing me to do things differently and the team,” Johnson said. “So we definitely have an effort in that direction, although it hasn’t yielded much yet.”

Johnson doesn’t take crazy chances, which contributes to the ho-hum dossier some of the NASCAR Nation hangs on him. Ask him if he cares. I did, back in February during Speedweeks.

“I don’t give a [bleep] anymore,” Johnson said, sitting pretty outside his motorcoach at Daytona International Speedway.

That’s the thing. With or without a title in 2017, Johnson is firmly etched among the greatest in the sport. He’s not going anywhere.

And Mr. Truex and the others had better be careful: Mr. Seven-Time isn’t done counting championships just yet.

Kenseth’s lament

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Matt Kenseth is a bitter man, and understandably so.

It’s not his grandfather’s NASCAR and it’s certainly not his. NASCAR has gone through so many incarnations since he won the Cup title in 2003. First we have the Chase. Now we have the Playoffs.

Whatever you want to call it, Kenseth is out of the contenders mix after finishing 37th in Kansas.

“I don’t know what any of the rules are,” he told reporters after the race. “Seems like we got a lot of stuff that kind of gets, you know, changed so often, I honestly can’t keep up with it. My head kind of spins from putting lugnuts out of pit boxes to one too many guys over the wall; you’re not allowed to race anymore. I just don’t get it, to be honest with you. I really don’t have a lot of good to say right now. I’m more than disappointed.”

He’s also uncertain, after getting bounced from Joe Gibbs Racing. He has no ride in 2018. You can look up the usual reasons: Kenseth makes too much money, and there is a lack of sponsorships. Home Depot and Dollar General have dropped out of the mix. And even though DeWalt stepped up to fill some of the gaps, Kenseth was without a primary sponsor moving forward.

“I’m just gonna say thanks to DeWalt,” Kenseth said. “They’ve been a sponsor of mine off and on for 20 years. Awesome guys there. They deserve better than this. We showed some flashes of brilliance this season, been off and on, been fast at times, had great pit stops at times, just haven’t been able to put it all together like a championship team needs to.”

Kenseth will be replaced by rising star Erik Jones, who gets a nice bump after racing for JGR-affiliated Furniture Row Racing this season.

gdiaz@orlandosentinel.com

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Twitter: @georgediaz


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