One of the people who could keep Jimmie Johnson from a chance at a record eighth Cup title is the man who helped Johnson win seven championships.
Tonight’s Cup regular-season finale at Daytona International Speedway (7:30 p.m. ET on NBC) features the last chance to make the playoffs. Johnson enters as the first driver outside a playoff spot. Hendrick Motorsports teammate William Byron, whose crew chief is Chad Knaus, holds that final spot.
While scenarios exist where both Johnson and Byron make the playoffs, there’s the chance the two could race for the last playoff spot.
“It’s just an awkward weekend,” Johnson said.
Knaus, who served as Johnson’s crew chief for 17 seasons before partnering with Byron last year, feels the same way.
“It’s so weird that I’m going to be battling the No. 48 car,” Knaus said.
Johnson texted Knaus on Monday morning. They later talked.
“I just reached out to him, and we had a good laugh about it,” Johnson said. “We certainly both look at the year and know there are moments that could have kept us both from being in this position, but it is what it is and we’re going to Daytona, which makes it even more awkward.”
Much is at stake for both on personal levels. Johnson seeks to avoid missing the playoffs for the second year in a row. This also is his last chance at an eighth Cup title because he’s said this is his final full-time season in the series.
Knaus seeks to continue his streak of making NASCAR’s postseason every year since the Chase was created in 2004 and morphed into the playoffs in 2014.
“You know, quite honestly, up until this year, I always thought it was pretty easy to make the playoffs,” Knaus said. “So, I hadn’t put a whole lot into (his streak). Obviously, the desire is extremely high to get into the playoffs. That’s what I want to do for sure, one hundred percent. But I hadn’t really thought about that a whole lot. It’s just what you’re supposed to do. It’s just part of the job, right? The expectation is to be in the playoffs. I never looked at it as anything other than just what you’re supposed to do.”
Johnson entered last season’s regular-season finale at Indianapolis outside the final playoff spot. He crashed while racing beside Byron.
“I think we’re going to be around each other, there’s no question, at some point of the race,” Byron said. “But there’s also so many cars that come into play at a place like Daytona. Dover, we were around each other at the finish. Things went well and we were able to race clean and all of that.
“I’ve never had issues with Jimmie – maybe my rookie year a couple of times, but that was just learning situations and understanding the Cup Series. I think we’ll be fine. Last year, we were locked in on points. I think we were three-wide, Indy is a narrow track, so I don’t really think that applies at all this year. We’re going to race and try to push each other towards the front and try to get both of us into the playoffs.”
Johnson isn’t looking back.
“We all understand the storylines,” he said. “I’m excited, I’m ready to go. I’m not one to spend too much time getting overly sentimental. I’m more excited about the opportunity to go racing and drive that 48 car. So, I’m just excited to get there and get to work.”