One race. Four points. That is all that will determine whether William Byron will have an opportunity to qualify for his second Cup postseason appearance of if teammate Jimmie Johnson will return to the Playoffs and receive one final opportunity to win his record-setting eighth Cup championship in his swan song season.
Following an eventful doubleheader weekend at Dover International Speedway, it was a tale of two stories for both Hendrick Motorsports’ teammates that have both competitors closer to one another for a spot in the 2020 Cup Playoffs and leaving one another to ponder which one of the two would make it in or if both could race their way inside the cutline following next weekend’s regular-season finale at Daytona International Speedway.
Prior to the Dover doubleheader, 25 points separated both competitors with Byron and the No. 24 Chevrolet team ahead of Johnson and the No. 48 Chevrolet team. On Saturday, August 22, the tables turned as Byron struggled with the handling of his race car and came home a disappointing 28th-place, four laps behind the leaders. Johnson, on the other hand, had a strong run at one of his strongest tracks as he collected a handful of stage points following both stages and finished in seventh place. By then, he was back inside the top-16 cutline to the Playoffs by three points over Byron.
On Sunday, August 23, it was game on between both HMS teammates as Johnson aimed to repeat his strong run on Saturday while Byron was seeking redemption to what has been an up-and-down season. With both starting outside the top 10, both made their way within the top-10 running order. On this occasion, it was Byron who came out on the upper hand as he finished in third place in the first stage while Johnson was back in eighth place. In the second stage and around the Lap 100 mark, Johnson’s race and Playoffs hopes seemed to have evaporated when he was caught speeding on pit road and was sent to the rear. Despite the misfortune, Johnson benefitted on a long green flag run to finish ninth in the second stage. The only problem was that Byron finished sixth and gained a handful more points on Johnson.
Throughout the final stage, Byron methodically worked his way into the top five with Johnson trailing behind him. With approximately 25 laps remaining, a late caution flew and both competitors pitted for the final time along with the rest of the leaders. During the pit stops, however, Johnson and crew chief Cliff Daniels opted for a two-tire pit stop to emerge with the lead. Byron, who opted for a four-tire pit stop along with crew chief Chad Knaus, exited and was lined up in sixth place with less than 20 laps remaining in the race. When the race restarted under green, Johnson was ahead for three turns until he was overtaken by the eventual winner Kevin Harvick. After losing the runner-up spot to Truex, Johnson was riding in third place on two fresh tires just ahead of Byron and teammate Alex Bowman. When the checkered flag waved, Johnson was able to finish in third place for his fourth top-five result of this season while Byron ended up in fourth place and notched his first top-five result of this season.
Including the stage points both received along with their top-five results, Byron reassumed the 16th and final transfer spot to the Playoffs by four points over Johnson with three spots to the Playoffs still vacant and only one race left to determine the 16 competitors who will compete for this year’s Cup championship and who will be among the rest who will be eliminated early from title contention.
For Byron, the fourth-place on Sunday left the Charlotte native pleased with his run as he looks to turn his regular season filled with up-and-down results into good fortune throughout the Playoffs as a title contender for himself, Chad Knaus and the No. 24 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE team. Ironically, Chad Knaus is still the only crew chief to qualify for every Playoffs since its inception in 2004.
“It’s like a completely different race car, completely different race for us [Sunday than Saturday],” Byron said on NBCSN. “We had the car doing the things we wanted it to do on most runs. It just felt good out there. I knew at the beginning of the race we were kind of keeping pace with [Truex] and [Hamlin] back in the pack. We made a few passes. As soon as we got the track position, we were staying up there. I think we were a little bit behind ‘cause we really didn’t have any notebook from yesterday. We wholesaled the car. I think if we had another race at it [at Dover], we probably could’ve done a little bit better. Overall, this is good for our AXALTA team. Going to Daytona, where it’s gonna be just insane. I don’t think you can really points race. You’re just gonna have to hope that things fall your way and be aggressive.”
“It’s good to be on the good side [in the Playoff standings], I guess,” Byron added. “What’s better is that there’s two to three guys within reach, or one guy within reach, really. Really two spot up for grabs. I hope Jimmie and I can both get those spots next week. Just happy with what we did overnight. Go from four laps down to finish in the top five is something to be said. That’s definitely a lot better.”
For Johnson, it ended being a pair of top-10 runs in his final two runs at Dover (38 overall) at a track where he has achieved 11 victories and has had a bevy of success since his rookie Cup season. While he was both pleased and disappointed with his results, he realizes the task at hand next weekend and vows to give it all to make his final Playoffs appearance as a championship contender for himself, Cliff Daniels and the No. 48 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE team.
“I actually had a little bit of hope, thinking that [the two-tire stop] would work, thinking clean air would be so important and we were still fast the run before,” Johnson said on NBCSN. “There were a lot of laps on those left-side tires. It just didn’t pan out, but I really appreciate Cliff’s courage to bet on me and give me a shot. We certainly improved our finish where we were running. All in all, a great call. Very proud of this Ally Chevrolet and everybody on this Ally team and all the hard work they’re putting in. I’m good with [the third-place result]. I want more. I know I’m capable of more and I know this team is. That’s our mission. I’m not gone forever. Just trying to slow down a little bit. I’ll be holding a steering wheel for years to come and it’s all about trying to win races.”
“I’m gonna do my best to forget about [making the Playoffs],” Johnson added. “There really isn’t any worrying that I can do this week to help me on a plate track. Studying, worrying, any of that’s not gonna make a difference. [We’ll] Go down there [at Daytona], say a few prayers, maybe say a prayer per lap and see how that plays out, I guess. We’ll race hard and if it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be.”
Byron and Johnson, along with their fellow competitors, will return next weekend for the NASCAR Cup Series regular-season finale at Daytona International Speedway on August 29, which will air at 7:30 p.m. ET on NBC.