Johnson, the only driver who has made NASCAR’s postseason every year since it was implemented in 2004, was one of four drivers who entered Saturday’s Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway on the bubble of making the 16-team field.
He left the track 26 points out of the 16th spot and most likely in need of a win either at Darlington two weeks from now — after an off date next weekend — or at the final regular-season race at Indianapolis in three weeks to make the playoffs.
Three other drivers on the bubble — Ryan Newman, Daniel Suarez and Clint Bowyer — left the track still in a tight battle for the final two spots in the postseason race for the series championship.
Bowyer battled back from a mid-race spin, one that helped Suarez and Newman earn key points, to finish seventh. Suarez took a top-10 finish in seventh place and Newman was 11th.
Bowyer’s spin came when his car went around in turn 2 after making contact with Quinn Houff with just six laps left in the second stage. That allowed both Suarez and Newman to stay on the track for the end of the stage and accumulate key points.
Bowyer drove back hard in the final stage and stayed in the top 10 the rest of the way.
Newman maintained the 15th spot in the standings after earning 34 points for a total of 603 this season.
Suarez earned 38 points and jumped ahead of Bowyer into the key 16th and final playoff position with two races remaining in the regular season.
Suarez has 591 points — 12 behind Newman — while Bowyer dropped to 17th with 589 — just two behind Suarez — after gaining 30 points in the race.
While the trio of drivers on the playoff bubble had strong nights, that was not the case for Johnson, who saw his season of struggles continue.
The seven-time champion finished 19th, several spots behind the other contenders on the bubble.
He earned 18 points in the race, giving him 565 on the season and leaving him 26 out of the key 16th position.
Johnson’s problems started early when he was making his way up through the field after starting 30th.
He made contact with Austin Dillon on lap 81 after Dillon’s car blew a tire and hit the wall. The former champ did find his way through the crowd of cars and get into the top 20. But he never got on pace to keep up with the other three cars on the playoff bubble.