The No. 24 and 48 Hendrick Motorsports teams are tied together in multiple ways.
There‘s Jimmie Johnson, who has driven the historic No. 48 Chevrolet to seven NASCAR Cup Series championships in 19 years. His crew chief during those title runs was Chad Knaus, and Knaus now sits atop the No. 24 pit box and works with William Byron. The young driver actually idolized the elder champion growing up.
And now the two competitors straddle the NASCAR Playoffs cutline with one regular-season race remaining.
“I was really a 48 fan through and through,” Byron said Thursday on a Zoom teleconference. “I‘ve got a lot of 48 stuff at my parents‘ house and a lot of different die-cast cars.
“I really don‘t look at it as me versus him. I know that‘s what the bubble is right now, but it really is an opportunity for both of us to get in. Trying to look at it as that. That‘s ultimately the goal — to get us both in.”
Byron sits in the final provisional NASCAR Playoffs spot — four points above the cutline. Johnson is the first driver on the outside looking in — four points below the cutline.
Another player in the mix is Matt DiBenedetto. The No. 21 Wood Brothers Racing Ford pilot is safe by nine points. He‘s the closest potential boot since Clint Bowyer is next but has a larger 57-point buffer (and could potentially lock himself into the playoffs by the end of Stage 1 on Saturday night).
There are technically three spots remaining in the 16-driver field, so Byron and Johnson can both still qualify. That‘s really what the two Hendrick Motorsports teams want, and they‘re willing to work together to make it happen.
“We‘ve got a shot at it, right?” Knaus said. “And that‘s what we need to try to do. I‘m hoping Jimmie makes it. I hope to hell the man goes out there and wins the championship, honestly. That would just be spectacular to see him be able to do that and knowing that I was a part of that would be really awesome, right? But we‘ll just have to see how the cards fall.”
Johnson is retiring from full-time competition at the end of the 2020 season. He hasn‘t won a race since June 2017.
Last season marked the first time Johnson did not advance into the playoffs since the format‘s inception in 2004. On the other hand, Byron made the postseason for the first time in his career. They finished 18th and 11th in the final standings, respectively.
“We don‘t feel — I don‘t feel and Jimmie does not feel — like everything about his career is just riding on this moment,” said Cliff Daniels, the No. 48 crew chief. “His career is already established. It‘s already defined. His success already speaks for itself.”
This year, Johnson has four top fives and nine top-10 showings. He‘s averaging a 15.3 finish. Byron has just one top five and eight top 10s. He‘s averaging a 16.7 finish. The difference — and the real reason Byron has a postseason advantage — is Byron has two stage wins and 110 stage points. Johnson has one stage win and 92 stage points.
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It‘s a tight battle. No doubt there. But at a track like Daytona International Speedway, collaboration is key. So, being teammates in this less-than-deal situation may actually help the Hendrick Motorsports garages.
“We are going to work with them all night Saturday night and put ourselves both in a good spot,” Daniels said. “I would love to be side by side, door to door with them, with points in the bag, coming to the finish line for the final checkered flag.”