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Johnson looking for Indy win to earn spot in 16-car playoff

NASCAR

INDIANAPOLIS — Jimmie Johnson wants to keep things simple this weekend.

Win and he’s back in the playoffs. Anything else complicates his strategy.

The seven-time NASCAR champion heads into Sunday’s regular-season finale two spots and 18 points out of the 16-car playoff, putting him in danger of sitting it out for the first time.

“Of course we’ll be aware (of the points), of course I’ll be fed information,” Johnson said after Saturday’s first Brickyard 400 practice ended. “But we’ve only discussed how fast we’re going to be and how aggressive we’re going to be to win the race and not have to worry about points.”

Johnson couldn’t pick a better venue to make this last-ditch run.

He’s one of five drivers with four wins on Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s 2.5-mile oval and if he reaches victory lane again today, Johnson would clinch a playoff spot and join Jeff Gordon as the only other five-time winner. Former Formula One star Michael Schumacher also won five times on Indy’s road course.

But this has not been the kind of season Johnson envisioned.

After a 17-month victory drought and a first-round playoff exit last season, Hendrick Motorsports split up the Cup’s longest running and most successful pairing by moving Johnson’s longtime crew chief Chad Knaus to William Byron’s team. Kevin Meendering, Knaus’ replacement, lasted 21 races on the pit box as the struggles continued.

In July, Cliff Daniels replaced Meendering but little changed.

Aside from an exhibition race victory at Daytona in February, Johnson hasn’t won since Dover on June 4, 2017. He hasn’t finished in the top 10 since Daytona on July 7 and has finished 30th or worse three times in the last seven races.

But Johnson comes to Indy confident and hopeful.

He finished 19th at Bristol and 16th last week at Darlington, picking up eight points on Danny Suarez and Ryan Newman, who are tied for 16th, despite being hindered by a crash in the final stage.

“We’ve had plenty of bad luck, that’s for sure,” Johnson said.

Maybe Indy will help him turn it around.

Johnson had the ninth fastest car in the first practice session with a fast lap of 182.700 mph. Only one of the four drivers fighting for the final two spots, Clint Bowyer, had a faster car. He posted a top speed of 183.329.

Kyle Larson, two-time Brickyard winner Kurt Busch, and defending race champion Brad Keselowski had the three fastest cars in the morning. All three have clinched playoff spots and Bowyer will join them — if he holds onto the No. 15 spot, 26 points ahead of Johnson.

Elsewhere:

n Kyle Busch needed a little help to return to victory lane Saturday.

First, he inherited the lead when the leaders crashed with eight laps to go. Then, on the final restart, he got the push he needed from Justin Allgaier’s teammate.

Busch took advantage by jumping in front of Allgaier, holding him off for the final four laps to claim the Indiana 250 by 0.132 seconds and extend his own record of career Xfinity Series wins to 96.

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