In Jimmie Johnson’s last attempt at a record-breaking eighth Cup title, the driver who could keep him from that chance is a teammate who once went trick-or-treating to Johnson’s house.
William Byron, Johnson’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate and half the age of the 44-year-old champion, holds the final playoff spot entering this weekend’s Dover doubleheader. Johnson trails Byron by 25 points.
Only a race on the Daytona oval remains after the Cup events Saturday and Sunday at Dover International Speedway.
The teammates describe their battle for the last playoff spot as “odd.” Add the fact that Byron’s crew chief, Chad Knaus, paired with Johnson on those seven championships and it makes this battle unique.
Johnson told reporters Friday that the position he and Byron are in is “unfortunate as well. It’s a situation we’re in.”
Said Byron: “You’d like to be in a different position than that, but that’s ultimately what’s happened and the position that we’re in. I think for us as a team, selfishly as the 24 team, we want to do as well as possible and get ourselves into the playoffs so we have something to race for in the last 10 races and really have an opportunity to advance through the rounds like we did last year.
“Yeah, it’s tough. I’m the biggest Jimmie fan I feel like out there. I hope that we both can make it somehow. I know this is his best racetrack coming up, so we’re definitely keeping an eye on that.”
Johnson’s 11 wins are a Dover track record. But he has none since his June 2017 victory there — his last Cup victory. He’s winless in his last 117 series starts.
While some would argue there isn’t a better track than Dover to host a doubleheader weekend as Johnson seeks to make the playoffs, he’s struggled recently. Johnson has two top-10 finishes in the last four starts there. Byron has one top-10 finish in four Cup starts at Dover.
“I love the track, obviously, and am optimistic of how we’re going to run,” Johnson said. “Just over time, though, I’ve kind of helped … my competition, especially inside the walls of Hendrick Motorsports. Chad Knaus is on the box of the 24 teams as well. William is a great student and really has increased his game at Dover. I don’t think it’s going to be easy to get points on him or a lot of points on him.”
A summer of misfortune put Johnson in this position.
He was on the way to winning the first stage in May at Darlington when he crashed while about to lap Chris Buescher. Johnson finished 38th.
Johnson placed second in the Coca-Cola 600 but his car failed inspection after the race and was disqualified. The penalty cost him 45 points.
He missed the July 5 Indianapolis race after testing positive for the coronavirus. He returned the following week at Kentucky and was third late in the race when contact with Brad Keselowski on a restart spun Johnson. Instead of a top-five finish, Johnson placed 18th.
A penalty and then later contact with the wall led to a 26th-place finish at Texas. He was collected in a multi-car crash while running 13th at Kansas and finished 32nd.
“I need to make the most out of each opportunity that I have ahead of myself,” Johnson said, “and I will certainly do that.”