As NASCAR’s regular season winds down, Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jimmie Johnson and William Byron are in a “weird” situation.
NASCAR has changed a lot since Jimmie Johnson began his full-time Cup Series career in 2002. He has raced under the Winston, Nextel, Sprint, Monster Energy, and plain old Cup Series banners. His record-tying seven championships have been won under four different playoff formats. The entire full-time journey, set to end at the end of the season, has been spent in the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet.
One thing hasn’t changed, however: Johnson is locked in an intense battle with a Hendrick teammate driving the No. 24 car.
It was Jeff Gordon, the man most associated with the No. 24, that personally scouted Johnson and got his Cup career rolling. Subsequent battles between the two have had lasting implications on NASCAR history and altered the Cup Series’ postseason picture. The battle ended upon Gordon’s retirement in 2015 but reignites in the most dramatic and sensational fashion at Daytona International Speedway.
The World Center of Racing’s Coke Zero Sugar 400 will host the NASCAR regular season final for the first time on Saturday night (7:30 p.m. ET, NBC). Johnson enters a familiar place on the schedule in the most unfamiliar spot: on the outside of the playoff picture and looking in. He’s four points out of the 16th and final seed…held by third-year driver William Byron, the new bearer of the No. 24. Only adding to the drama is the fact that Byron’s crew chief is Chad Knaus…who was atop the No. 48’s pit box for each of its seven titles.
The reality of the situation only hit Knaus through a conversation with Johnson after last weekend’s doubleheader at Dover International Speedway.
“I was like ‘man, it’s so weird that I’m going to be battling the No. 48 car going into Daytona’,” Knaus recalled when speaking with the media this week. “Then the next morning, at like 8 a.m., he sent me a text. He’s like ‘man, isn’t it weird that we’re competing with one another for this?’ So, we had a text right there and then we had a phone conversation a little bit later in the week. And hey, it is what it is. We’re both professionals here. We understand what’s going on. It’s racing. It’s competition.”
“Chad and I are great friends and have stayed really close through all that’s happened,” Johnson would say of the conversation. “Sure, it wasn’t easy and it wasn’t fun at some different points here recently, but I wish him the best. We talk often. I want the best for Chad and his family, and for Chad and his race team.”
“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. We’ll see how things play out.”
Unlike Johnson’s relatively quiet Cup Series arrival, Byron entered the Cup Series with a fair amount of hype. He won a rookie record seven races in the Camping World (now Gander RV & Outdoor) Truck Series’ 2016 campaign and then took home the Xfinity Series title at the age of 19. When Hendrick Motorsports rebranded their No. 5 Chevrolet to be the iconic 24, it was Byron who was called upon to take over.
Nearly three years in, a combination of bad luck and strong competition has Byron still searching for his first Cup Series win. If it came at Daytona on Saturday, it would clinch his second consecutive playoff berth. He won a qualifying event at the track for the Daytona 500 back in February, but an early accident relegated him to a last-place finish in 40th. The No. 24 car has shown speed throughout the season, the development stifled by factors beyond Byron’s control. For example, he had the lead at Indianapolis in July and won the first stage, but a lost tire relegated him to a 27th-place finish.
Johnson, stuck at 83 wins in the midst of a career-long 119-race winless streak, was quick and eager to note the improvements Byron has made in his third year behind the wheel.
“He’s a true student of the sport and his life is dedicated to racing,” Johnson said. “With his interest in sim racing, he can literally day in and day out learn tracks, drive cars, think about racing, think about setups, interact with his team on that level. During my generation, we could go test quite a bit and we did a lot of that. But still, I think he can get more reps in today’s world than the world that I grew up in and it’s been really interesting to watch him grow in his path. I think he probably has the fastest path to a NASCAR Cup car in the history of our sport.”
“Hats off to him. He’s doing a great job and I know he’s going to be a tough competitor at Daytona.”
Knaus was moved to Byron’s garage after the latter’s rookie season. The driver, a Charlotte native, grew up watching Johnson dominate the Cup Series circuit. A childhood incident only adds to the Daytona intrigue. As a child, Byron trick-or-treated at Johnson’s home in Charlotte…dressed as Jeff Gordon.
Now, Byron can deal the cruelest trick of all: denying Johnson a playoff berth in his final full-time season.
“I think it’s a great storyline. Jimmie is the guy that I looked up to as a kid,” Byron said. “I was really a 48 fan through and through. I’ve got a lot of 48 stuff at my parent’s house and a lot of different diecast cars.”
But with the Hendrick competition topping the list of Daytona storylines, Byron has no intention of actively kicking Johnson out of the playoff bracket. In fact, he’s hoping that both cars can partake in the first postseason party on Labor Day weekend at Darlington Raceway. Their HMS teammates, Chase Elliott and Alex Bowman, have already clinched their playoff spots through wins.
“I really don’t look at it as me versus him. I know that’s what the bubble is right now, but it really is an opportunity for both of us to get in,” Byron continued. “I’m trying to look at it (like) that. That’s ultimately the goal: to get both of us in. Jimmie is an awesome competitor and somebody I really look up to.”
“Hopefully, we both get in, you know?” Knaus asked rhetorically. “We both run really well at superspeedways. Hendrick Engines and the guys at the shop build some amazing race cars. So, hopefully, we can get out there and get some stage points and race well and get both the No. 24 and the No. 48 into the playoffs.”
Both Byron and Johnson can still get in on points, which would come at the expense of 15th-place Matt DiBenedetto (nine points ahead of Johnson in the cutoff). But the Daytona factor looms large over the proceedings.
As long as he’s competing for Cup Series points and is placed in the top 30 of the standings, Saturday’s winner will be partaking in the playoffs. Daytona’s propensity for tightly-packed racing and multi-car wrecks has created the perfect formula for surprise winners. Just last summer, in the most recent version of Daytona’s 400-mile event, Xfinity Series regular Justin Haley navigated his way through a big accident and a Floridan summer storm to earn an unlikely victory in the microbudget No. 77 Chevrolet of Spire Motorsports in just his second Cup start. Saturday’s field is rife with talented drivers that can steal the final spots. Both competitors are aware of the danger presented…both in the standings and on the track…but they’re loving every minute of it.
“It’s going to be great from a fan’s perspective,” noted Byron. “It’s going to be stressful in the car, but sometimes those are the most fun times and the most rewarding times in the race car, those times where you’re under pressure. It should be fun.”
Johnson is also excited, but perhaps a more accurate way to describe his Daytona mindset is one of peace. As he discussed with Knaus, opportunities were there to secure a playoff berth. There’s nothing he could’ve done about the Indianapolis event, sidelined due to a positive test for coronavirus, but a runner-up finish and the points that came with at Charlotte’s renowned Coca-Cola 600 in May was wiped out due to a failure at postrace inspection.
The calamities that have befallen 2020 have done nothing to change Johnson’s mind of retirement from full-time racing. His resume nonetheless continues to expand, adding the duty of professor to his resume through home-schooling his daughters Evie and Lydia. Having recently spoken on several societal issues since NASCAR’s return from the coronavirus-induced pause, Johnson expressed concern about the current state of the country but hopeful of what he’s seen from his children.
“At times, I’m discouraged by where we sit as a nation, as a world, and just how divided we all are,” Johnson admitted. “But then when I see my kids, their questions, and their genuine concern about the future of our country, of our environment, of racial inequality issues, gender-related issues, I do become encouraged. To hear a ten-year-old and a six-year-old weigh in on some conversations really has blown my mind. So, I do have some optimism for the future.”
On the track, Johnson isn’t looking to get sentimental. Whereas some see his final start at Daytona and what could be his final start in a “playoff” race, Johnson just sees an opportunity to drive his iconic Chevrolet again. That’s the way he wants it.
“We have a lot at stake and, again, it could be a great storybook ending for my last full-time race or race on an oval at Daytona. We all understand the storylines. 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.”
Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags