Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jimmie Johnson and William Byron find themselves in a precarious playoff bubble situation.
Byron currently holds the final postseason position, 25 points ahead of Johnson on the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs cutline. For the 22-year-old, the intense battle with Johnson, who‘s racing in his final full-time season, is less than ideal, to say the least.
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“Yeah, it‘s odd,” said Byron. “You‘d like to be in a different position than that, but that‘s ultimately what‘s happened and the position that we‘re in. … It‘s tough. I‘m the biggest Jimmie (Johnson) fan I feel like out there. I hope that we both can make it somehow. I know this is his best race track coming up, so we‘re definitely keeping an eye on that.”
Johnson echoed the same sentiment.
“Yeah, it is odd. It‘s unfortunate, as well,” Johnson said. “But it‘s the situation that we‘re in. With Chad (Knaus) 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.”
With three races left in the regular season, two of those events come in this weekend‘s doubleheader at Dover International Speedway, beginning with Saturday‘s Drydene 311 (4 p.m. ET on NBCSN/NBC Sports App, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). The 26-race regular season concludes Aug. 29 at Daytona International Speedway.
Johnson is an 11-time race winner at the 1-mile Delaware track, while Byron has one top-10 finish (eighth, spring of 2019) in four career starts.
The seven-time champion earned those record-breaking Dover wins with Knaus at the helm for the No. 48 team. Now, Knaus is working his second season as crew chief for the No. 24 team of Byron. Johnson hasn‘t won since Knaus left, and Byron has yet to win with the championship-winning crew chief.
“The one caveat to that is the driver I‘m focused on has Chad Knaus on the box, and he‘s (Byron) a student, friend, somebody I‘ve mentored and kind of taught how to drive good there and be competitive there,” Johnson said. “So, it is a very unique situation to be in and I wish it wasn‘t a Hendrick teammate that I was fighting for that last spot with.”
Byron has the possibility to alleviate some of that pressure by moving his way up the points standings, currently 23 points behind 15th-place driver Matt DiBenedetto, noting he feels like he still has time to make up a little bit of ground from the hole they‘ve created for themselves throughout the season.
But unless both Johnson and Byron can manage to break into Victory Lane — a task that would require Johnson to snap a 117-race winless streak and Byron to earn his first career Cup Series triumph — it‘s growing more likely that the postseason might not have enough room for both unless disaster strikes for drivers in front of them.
“(Byron has) really increased his game at Dover, so I don‘t think it‘s going to be easy to get points on him or especially a lot of points on him,” Johnson said. “For all of us out there, Dover is a track where you can get caught up in stuff and have a lot of cars affected. And then we roll onto Daytona after that, which who knows how to even approach that.
“I think the first race — being smart, just kind of see how things unfold, see where things lay out — will get me a better mindset on how I need to race on Sunday.”