ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
AP photo by Terry Renna / Jimmie Johnson drives the damaged Hendrick Motorsports No. 48 Chevrolet on pit road during Saturday's NASCAR Cup Series race at Daytona International Speedway.

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Long after a fireworks extravaganza lit up Daytona International Speedway, and well after William Byron and his Hendrick Motorsports No. 24 Chevrolet team ended their celebration in victory lane, Jimmie Johnson found a moment to reflect.

On his night. On his emotions. On his legacy. He pretty much covered them all.

Johnson posted a picture on Instagram of his battered Hendrick No. 48 Chevy, which was caught up in a wreck in the race and knocked out of playoff contention in the regular-season finale Saturday night. The crash meant his racing career would end without a record-setting eighth NASCAR Cup Series championship.

"7 it is," he wrote. "I'm damn proud of that in case you were wondering."

Johnson was running near the front of the pack most of the night and was in position to make the playoffs until Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano made contact and started a multicar melee that collected Johnson and nine others with less than two laps to go. Logano slammed into Bubba Wallace, who slid sideways and nearly wrecked Byron.

Logano tried to straighten his car, but Matt DiBenedetto rammed into his rear bumper and caused him to lose control for good. Johnson looked like he might escape the carnage, but Logano spun into Matt Kenseth, who made a hard right into Johnson's driver-side door.

Johnson sat on pit road in his mangled mess during a red flag and surely realized the "storybook ending" he talked about a day earlier was gone.

"The last couple of months, we've been really getting our act together and running well," Johnson said after finishing 17th and missing the final postseason berth by six points. "Definitely disappointed to not be in the playoffs. That was the No. 1 goal to start the year."

some text
AP photo by Terry Renna / Jimmie Johnson uses his cellphone on pit road before Saturday night's NASCAR Cup Series race at Daytona International Speedway.

The playoffs start next Sunday at Darlington Raceway in South Carolina. Johnson would have been safely in the 16-car field had he not missed a race after a positive test for COVID-19 and had a second-place finish thrown out at Charlotte Motor Speedway after failing inspection after the race.

He made note of both setbacks after another disappointment at Daytona, a track at which he has won seven times in two decades. He also has now crashed 43 times at the historic superspeedway.

Johnson handled the latest disappointment with grace and dignity — no surprise given the way he has gone about his business in an often glaring spotlight. He walked to victory lane to congratulate Byron and his team, including crew chief Chad Knaus. Johnson and Knaus were together for all seven titles in the 48 car.

"I feel awful," Knaus said. "Let's be quite honest, right? Jimmie shouldn't be in this position. That hurts. I hate it for Jimmie. He's one of my best friends. He was the first guy that came by pit road and looked up at me, revved up the engine, gave me a thumbs-up. He means the world to me. He's a great man and brother of mine.

"It hurts me, but it is what we do. We compete. We've got to go do what we need to do."

Johnson will do the same down the stretch, looking to end a winless streak now at 120 races. His last victory came in June 2017. The drought led to Johnson's breakup with Knaus and a new crew chief, Cliff Daniels.

"Cliff Daniels and these guys on my team, they pour their guts out for me," Johnson said. "There's 10 races left, 10 trophies to go chase, and we'll have to focus our efforts there."

Regardless of how it plays out, Johnson already has left an indelible mark on NASCAR. He won five consecutive championships (2006-10), forcing other drivers and teams to play catch-up, and added two more (2013, 2016) years after the unprecedented run. He's a sure bet as a first-ballot NASCAR Hall of Famer with a racing career that will be hard to match, let alone top, for anyone moving forward.

"The last three years have been tough. We all know that," Johnson said. "I think we've shown some bright spots, and Cliff has done a really good job of leading this team and taking this team in the right direction. I think we can show that and close out the year."

ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT