William Byron has narrow lead over Jimmie Johnson for final playoff spot

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A two-tire pit stop didn’t result in a win for Jimmie Johnson on Sunday at Dover International Speedway, but it netted him a few precious points entering next weekend’s Cup Series regular-season finale.

When the final caution came out with 23 laps to go, crew chief Cliff Daniels elected to put just two right-side tires on Johnson’s No. 48 Chevrolet.

They were the only team among the leaders to not take four tires.

Johnson, who was sixth before the caution, restarted first. He lost the lead to race winner Kevin Harvick, but earned a net gain of three spots. He placed third ahead of teammate William Byron and left Dover trailing him by four points for the final playoff spot.

“I totally (agreed),” Johnson told NBCSN of Daniels’ strategy call. “I actually had a little bit of hope that it would work, thinking that clean air would be so important and we were so fast the run before. There were a lot of laps on those left-side tires it just didn’t pan out. I really appreciate Cliff’s courage to bet on me and give me a shot. We certainly improved our finish from where we were running at the time. All in all, a great call.”

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Johnson had entered Sunday’s race with a three-point advantage over Byron. But over the course of the race’s second stage, Johnson’s fortune shifted wildly.

Following a Lap 100 caution for a Corey LaJoie spin, Johnson was seventh, four spots behind Byron. During pit stops, Johnson was tagged for speeding entering pit lane. He was forced to restart 30th.

Over the next 78 laps, Johnson drove all the way to ninth place before the end of the stage. Byron finished sixth. Through two stages Byron had earned 13 stage points to Johnson’s five.

“I felt like we were going to recover and have a decent finish, and I saw we put (Matt DiBenedetto) a lap down, so I was encouraged for the points situation there,” Johnson said. “Then I slowly caught (Byron) and I could see that orange bumper on his car and felt like we minimized the bleeding to them, and just hoped for cautions. I knew the only way we’d have a shot to win was a couple cautions to bunch the field up, and hopefully a few good restarts to go with that and pit stops to get me the track position. So just praying for those late‑race cautions and we got them.”

For Byron and the No. 24 team it was a vast improvement from their experience in Saturday’s race when pit strategy calls led to him finish three laps down in 28th.

The third-year Cup driver bounced back to earn his first top-five finish of the season after the team made “wholesale” changes to the car between races.

“It’s like a completely different race car, a completely different race for us,” Byron told NBCSN. “We had the car kind of doing the things we wanted to do, at least doing one thing most runs. Just felt good out there. I knew at the beginning of the race we were kind of keeping pace with (Martin Truex Jr.) and (Denny Hamlin) back in the pack. We made a few passes and as soon as we got the track position we were staying up there.”

The Hendrick Motorsports teammates now head into regular-season finale, which will be held for the first time on Daytona International Speedway’s 2.5-mile oval as Johnson tries to avoid missing the playoffs for the second year in row.

“I’m going to do my best to forget about it,” Johnson said. “There really isn’t any worrying I can do this week to help me on a plate track. Studying, worrying, none of that is going to make a difference. Go down there and say a few prayers and maybe say a prayer per lap and see how that plays out. We’ll race hard and if it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be.”

Byron said the race at Daytona will be “insane.”

“I don’t think you can really points race, you’re just going to have to hope things fall your way and be aggressive.”

Byron said “It’s good to be on the good side” of the playoff cutline.

“Honestly, what’s better is there’s … one guy within reach,” Byron said. “Really, two spots up for grabs. I hope Jimmie and I can both get those spots next week.”

The one driver within reach of Byron in points is Wood Brothers Racing’s Matt DiBenedetto. After entering the doubleheader 44 points above the cutline, finishes of 20th and 17th leave him just nine points above the cutline and five points ahead of Byron.

“Dover killed us,” DiBenedetto said. “We were pretty horrendous both days.”