RICHMOND, Va. – When the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs begin next week, three Hendrick Motorsports teammates will be among the 16 drivers competing for a championship.
Jimmie Johnson, Chase Elliott and Kasey Kahne are all locked into the field, while Dale Earnhardt Jr. missed out on the playoffs in his final Cup Series season.
Now, for the drivers in the playoffs, their points will be reset to 2,000 – with any playoff points gained during the regular season added to their totals to determine the playoff seeding.
Johnson is the fifth seed entering the playoffs, having accumulated 17 playoff points in the regular season due to three race wins, a stage win and his finish in the regular-season standings.
But even after an eighth-place result Saturday night, Johnson said the No. 48 team is looking to perform at a higher level now that the postseason has arrived.
“Definitely putting a lot of pressure on ourselves to be better than this,” he said. “But we do have some good news – fall is here, winter is coming, if you want to go ‘Game of Thrones’ on it, and we’re excited to get back to tracks that we run really well at.”
He is the only driver to have made the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs in every year of its existence, and enters this year’s postseason as the defending champion having captured his seventh title last season.
“I think if we get the momentum swinging the right direction, get one good race under our belts, we can get hot,” Johnson said. “We did it last year. So, I know we’re very capable of it again.”
"If we get the momentum swinging the right direction, get one good race under our belts, we can get hot."Jimmie Johnson
Elliott clinched his playoff spot Saturday night at Richmond with a 10th-place finish. Though he enters the postseason without a win, he is seeded as the No. 10 driver thanks to six playoff points earned via two stage wins and his finish in the regular-season standings.
“Good to be back in the playoffs,” Elliott said. “But we have some work to do to be contenders each week. We are not right now, so we have to be better.”
It marks Elliott’s second consecutive playoff appearance in just his second full-time Cup Series season.
“I know that everyone is really going to start pushing it next week and I hope our group is leading the pack when it comes to performance and the things that we need to do,” he said. “Now is the time of the year to get in the right direction if we are going to do it.”
"Now is the time of the year to get in the right direction if we are going to do it."Chase Elliott
Kahne enters the playoffs as the No. 13 seed. His thrilling Brickyard 400 win cemented his spot in the postseason and earned him five playoff points in the process, so he enters the playoffs with 2,005 points.
“We made a big jump by having that Brickyard win, we jumped to 13th,” Kahne said. “I think we have some work to do if we want to win a championship, but I think we can definitely do better than 13th. I think with everybody all-in, hopefully we can come out of nowhere and really make some noise throughout the next 10 races.”
It is Kahne’s first postseason berth since the 2014 season.
“I’m glad I’m in it this year and have an opportunity to see how far we can go,” he said.
"I think with everybody all-in, hopefully we can come out of nowhere and really make some noise throughout the next 10 races."Kasey Kahne
Earnhardt did not make the playoffs, though the No. 88 team gave it a valiant shot Saturday night at Richmond. The driver led 13 laps as the team tested a pit-road strategy, but when a timely caution flag did not come, Earnhardt was forced to finally make a green-flag pit stop and returned to the track down a lap.
“We weren’t gonna pass the top three guys,” Earnhardt explained. “So, we had to pull that strategy, and if the caution comes out while we’re leading, then we’ve got that track position that we need.”
Entering Saturday, the only way Earnhardt would have been able to clinch a spot in the playoffs would be to find Victory Lane at Richmond.
“Real proud of the guys,” Earnhardt said. “We had a great car. I thought our car was really good. That’s the way we should’ve run all year. I apologize to our fans that we were even in the situation that we were in tonight. Because we believe in ourselves and we should’ve been locked in before we got here. It wasn’t a great season performance-wise, but we’ve got 10 (races) to go. Tonight showed us that we can certainly run well if we work hard, so we’ll see if we can get a few more good runs, maybe a win, you never know. You’ve just got to keep going.
“We’ll keep plugging away and see if we can’t have some fun before the end of the season.”
The playoffs begin next week at Chicagoland Speedway with a race scheduled for 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN.