Jimmie Johnson passes Willliam Byron for playoff spot

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Jimmie Johnson avoided any costly mistakes Saturday at Dover International Speedway. His reward was a top-10 finish, which moved him into a playoff spot with two races left in the regular season.

Johnson’s year has been plagued by misfortune and mistakes. That’s put the seven-time Cup champion in jeopardy of missing the playoffs for a second year in a row. He entered Saturday’s race 25 points out of a playoff position.

Instead, things didn’t go William Byron’s way Saturday. Strategy calls went against Byron, who finished three laps down in 28th. He trails Johnson by three points for the final playoff spot after losing 28 points to his teammate. 

The series completes its weekend doubleheader at Dover at 4 p.m. ET Sunday on NBCSN.

The key, Johnson notes, will be no mistakes again.

“Keeping it within 100% for myself and the team is the important thing,” Johnson told NBCSN after his seventh-place finish. “Truth be told, we’ve been about a fifth-to-10th-place car throughout the year and I’ve been trying to do more than that, making mistakes. If we use our head (Sunday) and race hard, get clean stops I think we can get more of a cushion.”

Johnson’s misfortune has come in missing the Indianapolis race after testing positive for the coronavirus and having his second-place car fail inspection after the Coca-Cola 600 and be disqualified. His mistakes have included crashing on the last lap of Stage 1, which he was about to win at Darlington in May, and crashing at Texas

Saturday, Johnson fought with his car’s handling. But things went well enough that he finished in the top 10 in both stages, scoring seven stage points. Byron had no such luck. He also struggled with his car’s handling but a call by Chad Knaus went against them when no caution came out.

As cars began pitting on Lap 134, Knaus had Byron stay out. Most of the field pitted throughout the next 10 laps. Byron was one of five cars that did not pit during that time. With no caution, Byron had to make a green-flag stop 15 laps from the end of Stage 2. Knaus called for a two-tire stop, hoping that Byron would only be one lap down by the end of the stage and could use the wave around to be on the lead lap.

Instead, leader Denny Hamlin passed Byron before the end of the stage and put him two laps down.

Byron was left to try to run a full fuel run in the final stage in hopes he could trap cars down a lap or more but the caution never came. He again made a green-flag stop. That left him deep in the field and outside a playoff spot after the 311-lap race.