It may seem counterintuitive that Jimmie Johnson and William Byron will be working together as much as possible on Saturday night at Daytona. After all, Byron currently holds the final Cup Series playoff spot by four points over his Hendrick Motorsports teammate.
But cooperating more than competing may result in the best chances for each driver to move on.
“With facts on the table, and I think you guys have seen this at previous speedway races, if we decide that we’re not going to work with [Byron’s team] or any other Chevrolets, who are we going to have to work with?” Johnson’s crew chief Cliff Daniels said this week. “The Fords? The Toyotas? Right. That doesn’t put us in a great position to succeed because they don’t want us to succeed. So, I think through it all, the message, at least within our camp right now, is the best position that we can be in to succeed is going to be to capitalize on help from our teammates. And that does include [Byron’s team].”
Here’s why the idea to work with each other makes sense. The two drivers are racing to fill two of the three available playoff spots. Clint Bowyer is likely in the field barring an extremely early crash or mechanical problem.
While Byron is four points ahead of Johnson, he’s also just five points behind Matt DiBenedetto. With both Hendrick drivers within single digits of DiBenedetto, it’s realistic that they can each leapfrog him and push the No. 21 car out of the playoffs.
At nearly any other track, drivers and teams working together doesn’t have much impact. But at Daytona, where the draft is still king, it’s key to have someone willing to push you when you need it and pit with you under green to give you a drafting partner. The Chevrolet teams have worked well together as a group at Daytona and Talladega recently too. Why mess with a good thing now?
For Johnson, getting into the playoffs will be a boost in what’s been a flagging end to his career. The seven-time champion hasn’t won since June of 2017 and missed the playoffs a year ago.
“Watching my team develop, grow and end up where we are today led by Cliff Daniels, it’s been a tough three years – there’s no way around it,” Johnson said. “But we are coming and this team is on track. I do feel like we can get that base hit and I do feel that we can go [multiple playoff] rounds. And I do feel like we can get hot and be a championship threat. Yes, that will mean a lot to me, but for my team – they’re my motivation right now. Watching these guys give everything that they have week in and week out and they really are my motivation right now to go in addition to my competitive nature and what I want to accomplish.”
2019 was Johnson’s first season without crew chief Chad Knaus too. Together, they won seven titles and 83 races as one of the most prolific driver-crew chief combinations in NASCAR history.
Coincidentally, Knaus is Byron’s crew chief. Both Johnson and Knaus said they realized earlier this week that it was a bit awkward that they were having to potentially race each other for a playoff berth.
“We’re both professionals here,” Knaus said. “We understand what’s going on. And it’s racing. And it’s competition. And, we’ll go down there and hopefully, we both get in, you know? I think we’ve got that possibility. We both run really well at super peedways. 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.”
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Nick Bromberg is a writer for Yahoo Sports.
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