Jimmie Johnson banks playoff hopes on Saturday’s race at Daytona

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DAYTONA BEACH – Jimmie Johnson is running out of time – and laps – to make history.

One of the most-accomplished drivers in NASCAR history hasn’t been able to accept the laurels during a final season that was earned in a career that’s included 83 victories and seven championships.

The COVID-19 pandemic robbed him of celebration. A 119-race winless streak has him on the brink of missing this year’s playoffs and finishing the final 10 races in the rearview mirror as the other championship contenders steal the spotlight.

Johnson currently is 17th in the standings. The top 16 move onto the playoffs. And there’s only one race – Saturday’s Coke Zero 400 at the Daytona International Speedway – to transfer into the 10-week main event.

On a good day, Daytona is a handful, especially when blanketed by sultry summer heat. Finishing in one piece often is considered a miracle. Johnson needs all of that … and more.

To make it on points, the race for the final two postseason spots is down to three drivers – William Byron, Matt DiBenedetto and Johnson. Byron and DiBenedetto currently are above the cutline; Johnson is out.

Not only does Johnson have to finish ahead of his closest competitors, he must hope nobody below the current cutline wins the race to fill one of the automatic spots into the playoffs. Think that can’t happen? The last three winners in the summer Daytona race were Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Erik Jones and Justin Haley.

Unlike other legendary drivers like Richard Petty, Darrell Waltrip and Bill Elliott who worked well past their competitive prime, Johnson hasn’t put his career on cruise control. He insists the sport hasn’t left him behind. And he wants to go out on top.

“I never wanted to have a winless drought or have a winless season,” Johnson said. “But I’ve worked through so many of those emotions over the last couple of years and also understand that there are factors that I can’t control that have affected my performance.”

Johnson pinned a lot of his hopes on last weekend’s doubleheader at the Dover International Speedway. The one-mile concrete bowl was his favorite track and home to 11 of his career wins. Finishes of seventh and third got him back in the playoff mix, but anything short of a victory left Johnson in the dubious position of counting on Daytona for one final stand.

“It's going to be a really interesting race in Daytona from that respect,” Johnson said. “But at the same time, it's still Daytona, and in my opinion, “the big one” or all the wrecks that can happen is really going to determine who makes it into the playoffs. We did the best that we could here [Dover] over these two days, had two respectable results, closed the gap. But now it's kind of in luck's hands or in fate's hands down in Daytona at the plate rate.”

Johnson said he won’t worry about Saturday’s race since he’s been in so many difficult spots before. But he’s never been closing in on quitting as a fulltime driver before. There’s still an opportunity to become the only eight-time champion in the sport’s history.

“I guess actually maybe that's where experience will play through for me this weekend and I'll be able to keep my head on straight, think, keep my emotions in check and really race with a clear and open mind,” he said.

Crew chief Chad Knaus was called the shots for every one of Johnson’s Cup Series wins and championships. The tandem was separated after Johnson failed to win a race in 2018. Neither have won since.

Knaus now is Byron’s crew chief and both teams work under the same roof at Hendrick Motorsports.

“We've kind of seen it coming, right, the last couple weeks,” Johnson said. “The thing that is very encouraging is we now have the 21 car [DiBenedetto] there in the mix, so we both can get through, and we'll just have to race smart and see how stages play out and then obviously the finish at the end of the race [this] weekend. You know, at the end of the day for the 24 car [Byron], I wish them the best. They're my teammates. That car and that number, Chad Knaus, William Byron, they’re friends, they're teammates, and now that I know there's a path in for both of us, maybe I'll stop thinking so many bad thoughts about those guys and maybe we can both get in.

“With Chad on the box there, you just think of the layers of how it’s odd and we’re all fighting for that last spot in the playoffs.”

Breaking the winless draught has been so consuming, Johnson said he hasn’t had time to think about appearing at many tracks for the last time. That disconnect was compounded when the world was forced to shutdown in March by the pandemic.

“Maybe someday down the road I'll look back and think of these last trips to tracks and moments, but I'm just wired a certain way, and I think all competitors are,” Johnson said. “You keep looking forward and you don't spend much time putting a lot of emotional value into things.

“You know, I've been doing that all year long, and I'm running out of races so I guess at some point it'll probably hit me, but right now it's kind of business as usual and just focusing on the job ahead of me.”

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