INDIANAPOLIS – For nearly every season of Jimmie Johnson’s spectacular career in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, he has been a central player in the championship battle.

This year, however, he may not even make the NASCAR playoffs.

Johnson enters Sunday’s Big Machine Vodka 400 at the Brickyard 18th in points with one race remaining to determine the 16-driver playoff field. He is 18 points below the cut line, so the only way Johnson can guarantee himself a place in the field of 16 is to win Sunday’s 400-mile race – a contest he has won four times in his career.

“It would be a heck of a story to tie Jeff (Gordon) with five (wins) here and to come through a drought and all the things that we all know,” Johnson said in response to a question from SPEED SPORT Saturday at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. “You guys (media) had to write about it and talk about it. To have all that come to a conclusion and lock myself into the playoffs would be one hell of a story. Hopefully, that is the story.”

Johnson hasn’t won a Cup Series race since Dover on June 4, 2017 – 84 races ago.

He was a Cup Series rookie in 2002 and has been part of the championship conversation practically every year since, winning seven titles to tie NASCAR legends Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt for the most series championships.

There is a very slim chance that Johnson could make the playoffs based on points, but the drivers ahead of him, including Daniel Suarez and Ryan Newman, would both have to experience major setbacks in the race for that to happen.

The top 14 drivers are locked into the lineup based on wins and points. Positions one through 10 are race winners, with Busch leading the standings with four victories and 983 points and last week’s winner at Darlington, Erik Jones, the last winner to be locked in with a victory. He is currently 10th.

Positions 11-14 are locked in based on points.

Clint Bowyer has position No. 15 with 625 points, Suarez is tied with Newman with 617 points each, but Suarez gets the position based on a tiebreaker. Johnson has 599 points.

Luckily for Johnson, the must-win situation comes at one of his best tracks.

“I don’t mind coming here at all,” Johnson said. “I love the history of this track and love being here. Making a lap here is really special. It’s a place that drivers all aspire to come and compete. But, if I could pick a track, it would probably be Dover. So, it would be different if I had a chance to pick myself. I love it here. It’s a great place. The car is really fast, and we’re excited about the weekend.

“Of course, I’m going to be aware and of course I’m going to be fed information. So, we’ll just see how it unfolds. But, it’s pretty simple with just a couple of guys to worry about. And, I know that I need a lot of points in one afternoon. So, we’ve only discussed about how fast we’re going to be and how aggressive we’re going to be. Hopefully we have a victory and just eliminate any need for points. We know that the best plans don’t always play out, so we’ll see. But there will be some information coming in at times. But hopefully we have a fast-enough car that we won’t have to worry about it.”

Earlier in the day, Hendrick Motorsports teammate Chase Elliott said it was important for the entire Hendrick Motorsports organization to get Johnson into the playoffs. He remains the senior driver on the team and has the greatest history in the organization.

Cliff Daniels took over as Johnson’s crew chief before the Watkins Glen race on Aug. 4. Since then, he has been experimenting with ways to get more speed and performance out of the No. 48 Chevrolet.

“It’s pretty amazing to see the time and effort,” Johnson said. “And all of that has added up over the last couple of weeks, where our guys have been able to spend more time on the car that we brought here.

“So, it’s hard to just look at any given week and say hey, we’re going to do more because you don’t have the time. The truck’s got to load and leave and all that stuff. But, weeks back, things started clicking, which have allowed really every car that’s gone to the track in the last three or four weeks to have more detail and more time spent on it.”

Story continued on the next page.