Jimmie Johnson was silent on the radio over the final 17-lap run at Dover International Speedway, until he crossed the finish line and immediately keyed up.
The seven-time champion told crew chief Cliff Daniels “good job” for making a “ballsy call” that earned Johnson a third-place finish.
Daniels called for two tires on the team’s last pit stop in the Drydene 311, which gave Johnson the race lead. Johnson went from running sixth to controlling the race’s final restart with 17 laps to go. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a race-winning call, as Johnson was unable to fend off the dominant Kevin Harvick.
However, Johnson did keep two Hendrick Motorsports teammates at bay in William Byron and Alex Bowman. A third-place finish ties Johnson’s best result of the season.
“I was so excited and so happy to have the view I did sitting there upfront and have control of the restart,” said Johnson. “I knew when we hit the gas, and the 4 car [Harvick] was able to stay with me I was going to be in trouble, I needed to clear him into (Turn) 1, and quickly I realized that my left sides were pretty exhausted and just didn’t have the grip we needed in them.
“We had a really good car, and I really credit Cliff for making that brave call for two tires. I think we were one of the fastest cars if not the fastest car over the last two runs, just, unfortunately, clawing our way back in from losing track position (from a speeding penalty), and we didn’t have the best stop two from the end, so we really just had to gamble. I really appreciate his courage to do that. It netted a better finish. Certainly, I wish there was more there, but a great couple of days here in Dover.”
Johnson finished seventh and third in the Dover doubleheader. With his performance in the Saturday race, Johnson jumped above the cutline on the playoff grid by three points over Byron.
However, with Byron rebounding on Sunday, grabbing stage points and finishing just behind Johnson, the two have again swapped positions. Johnson goes into the final race of the regular season in Daytona chasing Byron by four points.
“It’s going to be a really interesting race in Daytona from that respect,” said Johnson of racing his teammate. “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 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.”
Johnson missed the playoffs in 2019, which was the first time in his career he was not a part of the postseason.
Byron’s fourth-place finish in the second Dover race was his best result of the season. And after earning a mere nine points in the Saturday race, Byron bagged 46 points in the Sunday race. In his third full season, Byron is looking to make the playoffs for the second straight year.
“It was like a completely different race car and completely different race for us today compared to yesterday,” said Byron. “We had the Axalta Chevy doing the things we wanted it to do on most runs. It just felt good out there. I knew at the beginning of the race that we were keeping pace with the 19 [Martin Truex Jr.] the 11 [Denny Hamlin]. As soon as we got the track position, we were able to stay up there.
“I think we were a little bit behind, though, since we really didn’t have a notebook from yesterday. I think if we had another race at it, we would run a bit better. Overall, this is good for our Axalta team. Now we’re going to Daytona where it’s going to be insane. I don’t think you can really points race. It’s going to be a race to be as aggressive as you can and hope things fall your way.”