Late wreck keeps Johnson out of playoffs

Ever the consummate professional, Jimmie Johnson went to victory lane to congratulate William Byron and his crew. Why wouldn’t he? The young man who used to trick-or-treat at his house will now race in the playoffs for a championship, after scoring his first career NASCAR Cup Series victory. He was especially happy for Byron’s crew chief, Chad Knaus.

“He is a brother to me,” he said, “The bond, relationship and friendship we have – I am genuinely so happy for Chad Knaus, William Byron and that entire 24 team. For one, Chad and my relationship with him and two, they’re my teammates. I’m in the trenches with them week in and week out.

“…to see him win his first race on this big stage with all the pressure, I’m really happy for both of them.”

He then walked to his golf cart, drove back to his motorhome and answered questions from the media in his post-race Zoom conference with the level of insight you’d expect from a seven-time champion.

Even as stoic as he is, however, he was holding back tears and was vocally cracking. It makes sense, given that in his final full-time season, he won’t race for an eighth championship, after a wreck in the closing laps at Daytona International Speedway capped off his subpar season.

With two laps remaining in the Coke Zero Sugar 400, Denny Hamlin hit the back of Joey Logano, which turned him into the side of Bubba Wallace.

“As we came by the start-finish line, I could see some rooftops moving around and I knew something was going on,” Johnson said. “I saw (Wallace) on the outside wall, but he gathered it up and we all kind of got rolling again down into turn one.”

Byron threaded the needle between Wallace and Logano, which loosened him up and backed him into the front bumper of Matt DiBenedetto, triggering a multi-car wreck in Turn 1.

Johnson almost made it through, with just a bent-in left-rear corner panel, but Matt Kenseth got turned up the track and into him, which sent him down the track and ruining his and Tyler Reddick‘s night.

While he returned to the track, remained on the lead lap and made it through a last lap wreck on the backstretch, he finished six points shy of usurping DiBenedetto.

Which means that Johnson, who — like the late Pat Summitt did with Tennessee women’s basketball in the Final Four — made the playoffs his playground for so many years, will miss it for the second straight year.

In 2019, the performance just wasn’t there. This season, however, he showed flashes of his old form, but still came up short.

“So, I think I had more optimism this year to make the Playoffs than I did last year,” he said. “If I go out and win a couple of races down the stretch, I’ll be really disappointed I’m not in the Playoffs.”

Immediately, some think back to the false positive COVID-19 test that kept him out of the action at Indianapolis as the reason for him missing the playoffs. Others, myself included, pointed to his team bringing an illegal car to the Coca-Cola 600 back in May. Ultimately, it was a combination of both, plus the 12-race stretch where he finished outside the top-10, that did him in.

“To look back at the ones that got away, the ones I never got a shot at, like the Brickyard, and to only miss it by six points – I knew it was going to be an emotional couple of weeks going down this stretch,” he said. “I knew the position we were in, so it’s not like this is a shocker or a surprise. So, my emotions are what I would have expected.”

Now, unlike his former teammate, Jeff Gordon, the best Johnson can finish his swan song season is 17th in points.

If there’s a silver lining, he’s got 10 more chances to move up NASCAR’s all-time wins list.

That’s all we’re focused on at this point,” he said. “Nothing else matters – it’s about winning races and finishing up this year as we should.”