Jimmie Johnson’s long, hard road to keep playoff run alive

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              Denny Hamlin celebrates after winning the NASCAR Cup Series auto race Saturday, Aug. 17, 2019, in Bristol, Tenn. (AP Photo/Wade Payne)
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DARLINGTON, S.C. (AP) — Jimmie Johnson knows he’s staring down the wrong kind of history when he lines up at Darlington Raceway.

The seven-time NASCAR champion is 18th in the standings heading into the Southern 500, two spots and a huge 26 points out of NASCAR’s 16-team playoffs — a grid Johnson has made since the postseason started in 2004.

While the fire still burns for the 43-year-old driver, Johnson must confront an 83-race winless streak, a crew chief in the job just over a month and only two chances left in the regular season to keep his playoff run intact.

“I want to get out there and earn another victory and earn my way into these playoffs,” Johnson said. “That’s what we’re all here for.”

Johnson’s road the past couple of seasons since his final title in 2016 has been rocky. His last win came in Dover in June 2017, an interminable drought for someone tied for sixth in career victories with 83. And with retirements of his Hendrick Motorsports dream-team teammates of Jeff Gordon in 2015 and Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 2017 have come the whispers about how long Johnson should continue.

“I would like to see him just win to shut everyone up, I guess,” said racing rival Kyle Larson, a Johnson fan growing up.

Johnson would have to best some of the hottest drivers to do it.

Denny Hamlin, winless in 2018, has had a big bounce-back season and seems to be peaking as the playoffs approach. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver has won four times this year, including at Pocono and Bristol the past four events. Hamlin’s looking for more at Darlington.

“We want to win as many races as I can, especially after not winning last year,” Hamlin said. “We want to take advantage of every single opportunity we can to win. Certainly over the last eight weeks, when we consider our best finishing potential, it’s all been a streak of ones.”

Hamlin starts ninth Sunday night. William Byron, Johnson’s Hendrick teammate, won the pole, his fourth of the season. Byron also joins Hall of Famers Fireball Roberts and Bill Elliott as the only NASCAR drivers to win poles for three of the circuit’s crown jewel events — Daytona 500, Coca-Cola 600, Southern 500 — in the same season.

Brad Keselowski, defending Southern 500 champ, starts second, followed by Kyle Larson, Kurt Busch, Daniel Suarez.

Johnson gained some confidence by finishing sixth in qualifying, his third best showing this season.

“We need to have a lot of things go right to win. I think we’re closing the gap to the frontrunners,” Johnson said. “We’re definitely doing it.”

Johnson is signed with Hendrick through 2020 and acknowledged he was closer to the end of his career than the beginning.

Johnson relied on patience and deft driving touch early in career.

“Now, where I am,” he said in Charlotte last May, “I don’t have that luxury any longer, if I want eight, nine (championships) or more wins.”

Owner Rick Hendrick apparently agreed. The team changed Johnson’s crew chief to Cliff Daniels from Kevin Meendering a month ago. Daniels was the race engineer for Johnson’s car during the 2016 championship season and the driver sees the relationship jelling since the switch.

He’s hopeful, though, that work put in during NASCAR’s off week will help things turn at two tracks where he’s had success. Johnson had the fifth fastest time in the opening practice at Darlington on Friday.

“I think this weekend it’s shown off the truck that our cars (have) more details put into them on the No. 48 car,” Johnson said. “And our guys had enough time to get the Indy stuff really dialed in.”

Crossing the finish line in front has been much harder to do.

No matter what happens the next two races, Johnson knows he and his crew will keep working with the same effort as always had.

“So that’s where I find my peace,” he said.