Must-win situations for Elliott, Johnson at Phoenix

Matthew T. Thacker/NKPPhoto

By Caleb Whisler, Staff Writer

If Chevrolet wants to be in the hunt next weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway for the championship in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, Jimmie Johnson and Chase Elliott, the remaining two drivers from Chevrolet in the Playoffs, must win this weekend at Phoenix Raceway.

For Johnson, this round was considered one of his strongest, but with a 12th place finish at Martinsville Speedway and a 27th place at Texas Motor Speedway, a place where he won earlier in the year, he sits eighth in the playoff standings just 51 points away from Brad Keselowski, who is on the cutoff line.

Johnson has approached this round since its start as a “must-win” round. With the added pressure of having to win, Johnson feels that his team can race and compete free.

“I feel pressure can make teams either play tight, or some can play free in those moments. And I think our team has shown over time that we can play and race and compete free. We’re not immune to it. We have our moments as well, but we’re going to have to fall back on everything this team is made of to win here this weekend and keep our championship hopes alive,” said Johnson.

The biggest issue for Johnson and his No. 48 team is having to chase speed. Since late spring, the No. 48 team has been trying to extract speed from the cars. In that process of trying to extract speed, there has been difficulty in trying to drive the car.

 “You start making decisions late spring and early summer, trying to extract speed out of the cars. And that doesn’t always make them comfortable to drive. So, it’s hard to say it’s just one thing, but the start of the process is just trying to make our cars faster. And, at times we’ve not made the best decisions and have made them very hard to drive. I think Texas was an example of that and also Kansas. We spun twice there. So, it’s just trying to make the cars faster,” said Johnson.

For Elliott, his 27th place finish at Martinsville following contact with Denny Hamlin for the race lead puts him in the seventh position and only 40 points below the cutoff line.

Throughout the playoffs, Elliott has been the top guy on the charts for Hendrick Motorsports. Elliott knows that these races are more than just raw speed. Elliott knows that the organization as a whole knows the direction they need to go, but it about executing and putting the race together.

Elliott is quick to understand that NASCAR is a sport of do’s and don’ts. He understands that he and his team cannot go back and change past decisions, but can learn from those past mistakes to help them in the future.

“I think you just have to understand whatever position that you are in and hope that you learn something from that experience to know that if you are ever in that position again you can change the outcome,” said Elliott. “I think sure there are disappointments that have come along with that and with that learning curve, but I think that you just have to understand that you can’t change it and you hope you can change the outcome the next time it rolls around, if it ever does.”

Although he has had a solid eight weeks in the playoffs, Elliott would leave this weekend disappointed if he was unable to be in the final four at Homestead.

“I think that is a bit disappointing if you don’t make it – to know that much.  There have been some solid pieces to the season, but I don’t think it would be satisfying if we leave here and are not a part of it next week.   Especially knowing how well we have run these last eight weeks and not be a part of the show.”

One thing is for certain, Johnson and Elliott will not leave anything on the table this weekend to compete for the championship next weekend.

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