By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
Jimmie Johnson finished third in his final race at Dover International Speedway, a track he’s conquered a record 11 times throughout his 19-year NASCAR Cup Series career.
Despite capturing his fourth top-five of the year, Johnson had to overcome a speeding penalty early in the race which set him back to 30th. As the race began to wind down, he had worked his way back into the top-10 and when the caution came out for Corey LaJoie on Lap 290, crew chief Cliff Daniels made a brave call by going for right side tires.
As a result, there was a glimmer of hope for the seven-time champion of snapping his 119-race drought dating back to Dover in 2017, but there was also a lot was at steak due to Johnson leading the race.
One, should he pull of the victory, it would lock him into the playoffs and have a shot of fighting for an eighth title. Two, it would bump his Hendrick Motorsports teammate William Byron out of the top-16 with Matt DiBenedetto now holding onto the last spot.
Coming to the green with 17 to go, Johnson chose the top with Kevin Harvick, who had dominated the race all afternoon, on the inside. Johnson’s white No. 48 Ally Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE got a nice push from Martin Truex, Jr. and held onto the lead until Harvick’s four fresh tires was too strong for Johnson to handle and was passed in Turn 3.
Johnson said that his older left side tires did him in, but when asked about the pit gamble, there wasn’t any pressure because he was simply satisfied being put in a the race win picture.
As the No. 4 Mobil 1 Ford Mustang checked out en route to his seventh Cup win of 2020 and the 700th triumph for Ford, Johnson was now outside the top-16 by three points over Byron, desperately trying to hang on for second.
With 14 to go, Truex went low and cleared Johnson in Turn 1 where things got real intense because Byron was behind him in fourth. Despite the effort from Byron, the 44-year-old legend held onto third which equaled his season best from Bristol back in April, but still outside the cutoff line by four points.
“I think we were one of the fastest cars if not the fastest car over the last two runs, just unfortunately clawing our way back in from losing track position, and we didn’t have the best stop two from the end, so we really just had to gamble,” said Johnson.
“I really appreciate his courage to do that. It netted a better finish. Certainly wish there was more there, but a great couple days here in Dover.”
Heading into next Saturday’s Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona (7:30 p.m. ET on NBC), Johnson has to either win or find a way to survive the 160-lap race and beat Byron by several positions. Not only that, he’ll also have to ponder on DiBenedetto because he’s only nine points above the cutoff line.
Perhaps working with Byron could lead to tremendous playoff implications, but time will tell as Daytona tends to be an unpredictable crap shoot.
“It’s so hard to know how things will play out down in Daytona,” said Johnson. “If you get single file and it’s the old track with high tire wear, which it won’t be, you can work with a teammate and really try to create some opportunity, but if we’re all running in a big group, luck is going to play a bigger role in things for the majority of it.
“I mean, if you have a dominant car and you can lead the race and control the lanes up front, there’s an opportunity there, obviously, but I feel like luck and fate is going to kind of control the outcome of this.”
As for the No. 48 team’s approach, nothing will change as far as sharing information with the team, including Byron’s No. 24 camp.
“Oh, yeah, always has been,” said Johnson. “It was that way racing my teammates for championships; it’s certainly that way going into a playoff race.”
Another thing that won’t happen anytime soon is any form of trash talking between Johnson and his former crew chief Chad Knaus, who’s been calling the shots for Byron since last season.
“We did see each other a few times on pit road. Neither of us want to be in this position,” Johnson explained. “I think we both know that here we are with one race left, and it feels like everything is on the line. But we’ve had 25 races ‑‑ I’ve had 24 versus their 25, to not put ourselves in this position.
“You know, I think we both reflect back on the year and the moments that got away, and we’ll just go see how a restrictor plate race can settle this thing.”