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Friday Phoenix Notebook

Jimmie Johnson needs another miracle in final Round of 8 race

AVONDALE, Ariz. - Last year at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Jimmie Johnson won his seventh Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship with a serendipitous victory in the Championship 4 race.

This year, Johnson will need more than serendipity. He'll need what amounts to a miracle just to earn a shot at a record eighth title.

Johnson comes to Phoenix Raceway eighth in the series standings, last among the drivers trying to survive the Playoff's Round of 8. With one berth available in the Championship 4, the driver of the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet is 51 points behind fourth-place Brad Keselowski with no realistic chance to qualify for the finale on points.

Complicating Johnson's problem are a year-long search for speed. During a season that has produced a career-low four top-five finishes, Johnson's current winless streak has reached 21 races. That said, it's hardly surprising that Johnson isn't brimming with optimism about his chances at the one-mile flat track in the Sonoran Desert.

"We're in a must-win-situation," Johnson said on Friday morning before opening practice at Phoenix. "We wish we were in a better points scenario, but that's not the case. This team thrives on pressure and adversity, and we're certainly in the position right now. When we look at the last two or three races here, we've had very competitive cars.

"The effort was made this week to make sure we brought the best bullet-second to none-and I'm really proud of my team and the way that all of Hendrick Motorsports is working together to make sure that the No. 24 car (of teammate Chase Elliott) and the No. 48 car have their best chances to win here and move on and stay alive for the championship. We'll find out Sunday afternoon."

Johnson has a formidable streak on the line in this year's Playoff. Since NASCAR adopted a postseason format in 2004, Johnson has won at least one race in the final 10 each year. He has two races left to keep the string going.

THERE ARE CERTAIN MOMENTS DALE EARNHARDT JR. WOULD RATHER FORGET

In a long career that has produced its share of notable memories, there are certain moments Dale Earnhardt Jr. would just as soon forget-particularly when it comes to crashing other drivers.

Earnhardt was especially chagrined during the first superspeedway test of the new Gen-6 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series car on Jan. 11, 2013. Attempting to bump-draft with Marcos Ambrose on the backstretch, Earnhardt triggered a huge wreck that sent at least 10 teams home with mangled chassis in their haulers.

"We're testing, and it's January and everybody's cars are brand new," Earnhardt said on Friday at Phoenix Raceway. "Everybody is testing their brand-new speedway car, and I started a crash on the back straightaway and I'm like 'Oops, my bad.'

"You go in the garage and you are like, 'Man, I just want to go hide in the trailer.' Everybody's torn up cars are coming in and all the crews are all pissed off... those are some of the worst moments as a driver, some of the most embarrassing moments. So anytime you do anything like that, you hope people have short memories."

WIDE-OPEN XFINITY PLAYOFF ROUND OF 8 MAKES FOR MORE STRATEGIC CHOICES

With three berths in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Championship 4 race already spoken for, Jimmie Johnson, Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney have limited options if they hope to arrive at Homestead with a chance to win the series title.

In fact, they have only one realistic option if they hope to advance from the Round of 8: win Sunday's Can-Am 500 at Phoenix Raceway (on NBC at 2:30 p.m. ET).

That's not the case in the NASCAR XFINITY Series, where 57 points separate first-place Elliott Sadler from eighth-place Ryan Reed. No XFINITY driver comes to Phoenix with a guaranteed spot in Championship 4 event.

Sadler, William Byron, Justin Allgaier and Brennan Poole currently are above the cut line, but Matt Tifft, Cole Custer and Daniel Hemric are five, 13 and 18 points, respectively, behind Poole in fourth-deficits that could be erased in the first two stages of Saturday's Ticket Galaxy 200 (on NBC at 3:30 p.m. ET).

That makes the approach to the race a bit more complicated than the one facing the Cup drivers on Sunday.

"I don't want to say take the race on the fly, but that's kind of how you've got to approach it first," said Hemric, who drives the No. 21 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet. "When we get on the track here, how our speed is will translate into the approach and the plan for the rest of the weekend. Depending on where you are on that side of it, that determines how aggressive you can be with your strategies and your tires and how many tires and all that stuff.

"Knowing that there are four spots-at any second, a flat tire, somebody spins and gets into the fence, anything that can happen... the next thing you know, it can bring a little more life to somebody else's day, and it's like 'Oh, gosh, we've got hope,' and that hope brings intensity and brings aggression."

--- NASCAR Wire Service ---

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