If you’re still getting used to NASCAR’s new-for-2017 stage racing, you’re in good company: So is seven-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson.
Johnson easily advanced to the second round of the Cup playoffs, which begins with Sunday’s Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. But Johnson acknowledged he and the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team need to do a better job of amassing stage points if he wants to continue to move to the next round in the title hunt.
This year for the first time, NASCAR breaks races down into three stages, typically putting stage breaks at roughly one-quarter and one-half the race distances. The top 10 finishers in each stage get points ranging from 10 points for winning a stage down to one point for finishing 10th. The stage winners also get one playoff point.
With 20 stage points available in each race, it’s important for drivers to amass as many as they can. In the first round of the playoffs, Johnson only had 13 out of a possible 60 points — seven at New Hampshire and six more at Dover.
In Round 2, Johnson will try to improve upon those totals. One key, the driver said, will be to do a better job qualifying.
“I think this year vs. last, yeah, qualifying is much more important than it’s ever been to try and score those early stage points,” Johnson said Thursday night after Hendrick Motorsports unveiled its 2018 Daytona 500 paint schemes. “When it’s in a three-race block like it is, those few points you collect really do mean something. … every one of those points is important. That’s much different than last year.”
Johnson admitted qualifying has been something of a challenge. He hasn’t qualified in the top 10 since the Brickyard 400 10 races ago, and in the three playoff races so far, Johnson has qualified 14th, 12th and 17th.
“I don’t know how I can put any more on it,” Johnson said when asked about his team’s emphasis on qualifying. “I feel like I’ve got to stop overthinking it now. We have tried so hard to get qualifying under control. And I think this format in general doesn’t suit us, but we love a challenge and we’ll figure it out.”
The good news for Johnson in terms of starting is this week’s race is at Charlotte, where he has eight points wins, four poles and a series-best average starting position of 8.063.