KANSAS CITY, Kan. - Jimmie Johnson knows he needs to do better at qualifying, but he's not sure how to accomplish that goal.
The numbers don't lie. Johnson's average starting position through 31 races this season is 17.0. His previous low mark was 14.3 in his 2002 rookie year.
The mid-pack starting spots have had dire consequences. The seven-time champion's lackluster efforts in time trials have translated to a career-worst average finish of 15.8. Though Johnson has won three times this season, he has finished in the top five only one other time.
Only one previous time in his career has Johnson failed to crack double digits in top fives. That was 15 years ago, when he posted six top-five results in his rookie season.
But the real negative of mediocrity in time trials manifests itself in stage racing. Starting from an average of 17th on the grid, Johnson has had difficulty accumulating stage points to any significant degree.
As a consequence, he's eighth in the standings, fighting to retain a spot in the Round of 8 in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoff. It doesn't help that the driver who is seven points behind him-Kyle Busch-has eight poles this season and an average starting position of 7.1.
That's an average advantage of 10 spots over Johnson, or 10 points, to start every race. That's why qualifying is number one on Johnson's to-do list of areas to improve.
"It hasn't been a strong suit of mine, and over the last couple of years, it has slipped even more," Johnson told the NASCAR Wire Service on Friday at Kansas Speedway, site of Sunday's Round of 12 elimination race the Hollywood Casino 400 (on NBCSN at 3 p.m. ET). "This year, we knew before the season ever started that the importance of qualifying was going to ratchet up and be two to three times more important, essentially.
"Even with all that awareness and the thought process and attempts to raise our qualifying performance, we haven't yet. And we're looking at every option possible. Again, here this weekend, I personally am trying to find the right rhythm that is needed out there on the track to put up that lap time. Through practice and the three rounds of qualifying, at some point I can sneak the speed out of the car and post a good lap, and for whatever reason trying to back that up or do it lap after lap, just haven't been able to pull that off."
It's not that Johnson has neglected qualifying in preparing for each race.
"We've spent a lot of time focusing on it, and we're almost to a point now where we overthought it," he said. "Are we slowing ourselves down from overthinking it in some regards?
"We're aware and trying hard and have been trying hard to get that right. Hopefully, we get it."
As an added incentive, Friday's pole winner at Kansas Speedway will earn the No. 1 pit stall next week at Martinsville, where the stall closest to the exit from pit road is a huge advantage.
But Johnson can't worry about that now. If he doesn't survive Kansas in the top eight, Martinsville won't matter, where a possible record eighth championship is concerned.
KYLE BUSCH FACING FIRST DO-OR-DIE TEST AT KANSAS SPEEDWAY
Three weeks ago, after the Round of 16 elimination race at Dover, Kyle Busch was in a comfort zone.
Then Charlotte and Talladega happened.
In the first event in the Round of 12, Busch hit the wall at Charlotte and finished 29th, six laps down. In last Sunday's thrilling race at Talladega, he crashed out in 27th.
Those two results wiped out the advantage he had built in playoff points and left him ninth in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series standings, seven points behind Jimmie Johnson in eighth.
With elimination looming in Sunday's Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway, only 10 points separate Ryan Blaney in seventh from Matt Kenseth in 10th, with Johnson and Busch in-between. In all probability, two of those four drivers will advance to the Round of 8, and two won't.
"I feel like I wouldn't be worried about this if I didn't have Charlotte or Talladega happen," Busch said. "But that's not the situation we're in. We've just got to do a good job. This is our first 'Homestead' of this year.
"We've got to come through this race. It's not a must-win, but it is a must-perform. We've got to do everything right in order to go out there and be the top guy all day out of the four legitimate candidates that are fighting for the two spots available. We've just got to concentrate on that and make sure we can get it done."
WILLIAM BYRON IS PREPPING FOR CUP CAREER IN A SIMULATOR
William Byron is right in the middle of a heated battle for the NASCAR XFINITY Series championship, but that doesn't mean he's not preparing for next year's quantum leap to the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.
Though Byron has yet to run his first Cup race, he has been spending time driving a simulator for Hendrick Motorsports to help Hendrick's current Cup competitors prepare for their events. Alex Bowman, who will take over the No. 88 Chevrolet from Dale Earnhardt Jr. next year, shoulders most of the simulator duty, but Byron also takes advantage of the opportunity.
"I go in there and help them with Cup Series stuff most of the time," said Byron, who is the top seed in the XFINITY standings. "Sometimes they give us stuff from XFINITY, but most of the time it's Cup stuff and seeing what they're going to do for the weekend.
"It's a very helpful tool, and I'm very thankful for Chevy's support to have that there for us. A critical part of the sport right now is doing those things. We're trying to keep developing in it, and I think it's going really well. I just enjoy being in there and being able to use it."
--- NASCAR Wire Service --