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Denny Hamlin watches a television monitor as the last car qualifies for the NASCAR Cup Series auto race, Friday, Aug. 16, 2019, at Bristol Motor Speedway in Bristol, Tenn. Hamlin won the pole for Saturday night's race. (David Crigger/Bristol Herald Courier via AP)
Denny Hamlin watches a television monitor as the last car qualifies for the NASCAR Cup Series auto race, Friday, Aug. 16, 2019, at Bristol Motor Speedway in Bristol, Tenn. Hamlin won the pole for Saturday night's race. (David Crigger/Bristol Herald Courier via AP)|Associated Press
NASCAR

NASCAR: The Eckel 3 head back to Bristol thinking about Jimmie Johnson, but picking Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano, Ryan Blaney and a longshot

Bristol Night Race, Bristol Motor Speedway, Bristol Tennessee, 7:30 p.m.

Mark Eckel

Time may be running out for one of the greatest drivers in NASCAR history.

Jimmie Johnson has won 83 races in his spectacular career. That’s tied for the sixth most of all time and 28 more than the next best active driver, Kyle Busch.

If he wins another race, it will move him into a tie for fourth all-time with Darrell Waltrip and Bobby Allison. If he wins another race it will also qualify him for this season’s playoffs. The problem is Johnson has not won a race since June 4, 2017 when he took the checkered flag at Dover.

Johnson failed to win a race during the 2018 season, but slipped into the 16-field playoffs as the No. 14 seed. He’s facing a similar challenge again this season.

Right now as NASCAR heads to Bristol for Saturday’s Night Race, Johnson is not in the playoffs. He sits in 18th place with 547 points. Ryan Newman is in 15th place with 569 points followed by Clint Bowyer (559) and Daniel Suarez (553).

So with three races left before the playoffs begin, four drivers are within 22 points for the final two spots.

Johnson, who began racing in 2002, has never missed the playoffs. He’s won the Cup Series seven times in his career, that’s tied with Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt Sr. for the most ever, and he won four straight from 2006-10.

Now as his 44th birthday approaches (it’s Sept. 17), he has three races, Saturday night, Labor Day weekend at Darlington and Sept. 8 at Indianapolis to make up the points to finish in the top 16.

Or he can just win for the 84th time.

Here are our the selections for Saturday’s race, as always with the help of Scott “Tobacco Road’’ Baker and Mike “Left Turn’’ Sweeney. Use them for your winner, top three, top five and fantasy plays.

Denny Hamlin (8-1) — “Tobacco Road” and I both put him on top. He’s probably been the circuit’s most consistent driver all season, looked good qualifying and finished third here in 2016 and 2017.

Joey Logano (8-1) — After a short stay on top of the standings, he fell back into second place behind Kyle Busch. A win tonight could get him headed back to first overall.

Kurt Busch (25-1) — That’s just too good of value to pass up for a driver with six wins over this track in his career.

Ryan Blaney (10-1) — “Left Turn’’ has a hunch that this might be Blaney’s week. He’s not alone, either. The odds on the 25-year-old dropped from 18-1 to 10-1.

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