FORT WORTH, Texas (AP) — Jimmie Johnson still has two very conceivable options for a chance to race for his record-breaking eighth NASCAR Cup Series championship.
Win one of the next two races, or just be in the top four in points after that, and Johnson will get one of the four championship-contending spots in two weeks.
“I do feel good about getting in,” Johnson said.
Johnson is a seven-time winner at Texas, where the Cup Series races Sunday. He won there in April in the first race after the 1 1/2-mile track was completely repaved and restructured in Turns 1 and 2. And in the current driver standings, he is only three points out of the top four spots.
As for Chase Elliott, his Hendrick Motorsports teammate is probably in a must-win situation after being oh-so-close to being locked into a title shot at Homestead.
Elliott arrived in Texas eighth among the eight championship contenders, and 26 points out of the top four, after being wrecked by Denny Hamlin when leading two laps shy of the scheduled checkered flack at Martinsville last week. His first Cup victory would have locked him into a championship chance, and a top-five finish could have been a points boost. He instead finished 27th.
“As long as the week has gone along, it has given me a lot of time to think about how close we were to going to Homestead,” Elliott said. “I think if anything else that will drive you up the wall more if you think about it.”
Making things even more difficult and frustrating for Elliott in Texas, the No. 24 didn’t make it through tech inspection in time to make a qualifying run Friday. He will start 34th while all the other seven championship contenders qualified in the top 10.
Martinsville winner Kyle Busch, who held off points leader Martin Truex Jr. for the race that needed five extra laps, is the only driver who has clinched one of the four championship-contending spots in the season finale.
Kurt Busch, out of championship contention and with his Cup status for next season still unsettled, is on the pole at Texas after being one of five drivers with qualifying laps of more than 200 mph. He is now with Stewart-Haas Racing, though doesn’t have a deal settled for 2018 with that or any other team.
“No updates for me. We are in negotiations,” Busch said, without elaborating after qualifying. “Days like today help quite a bit.”
Hamilin, who is seventh in points, qualified second after going 200.617 mph. Kevin Harvick, now holding down the fourth spot, starts third. Points leader Truex starts seventh, two spots behind Kyle Busch.
“Definitely confidence is high. Feel good about it. Mile and a half is — obviously they’ve been good for us this year, but honestly, I feel like everywhere we go this year, right now especially, we can run up front and have a shot at winning,” Truex said. “Being able to come here with a pretty nice points cushion feels good, and hopefully we’ll be able to go out here and take care of business.”
Brad Keselowski, the other driver currently in the top four spots, starts 10th. That is a spot lower than Johnson, who has gone 20 races without a win.
“Comfortable here, we’ve stayed alive. It hasn’t been pretty, but we’ve stayed alive,” Johnson said. “And we’re at one of our best tracks. … We want to win. If we can’t do that, we understand where we are at the points. Hopefully we can do it.”
Hamlin has apologized publicly on social media to Elliott, but that didn’t change the frustration for Elliott, who said in Texas that he wouldn’t answer any questions about whether he was going to try to get Hamlin back on the track.
That led to Johnson being asked if he had to be extra careful if he found himself behind Hamlin and his teammate Sunday.
“Yeah, you stay aware. There is no doubt about it you don’t want to be caught up in something that you don’t need to be,” Johnson said. “But, we will just see how that evolves. Last weekend was crazy on a lot of levels.”
There is certainly a lot more room, and a whole lot more speed, at the high-banked oval in Texas.