Dover gains help Byron, Johnson tighten playoff picture for Daytona finale

Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jimmie Johnson and William Byron described their circumstance on the NASCAR Cup Series playoff bubble as “odd” and “unfortunate,” vying for the 16th and final provisional spot on the postseason grid with the regular season winding down. A points bonanza Sunday for both drivers opens up a greater possibility for both funneling their way in.

Johnson finished third in Sunday’s Drydene 311 at Dover International Speedway, rallying from a Stage 2 speeding penalty and benefiting from some two-tire strategy savvy on his final pit stop. That result was one position in front of Byron, who regained his hold on the provisional 16th spot by four points over Johnson.

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Both Hendrick Motorsports drivers finished among the points-earners at each stage break Sunday, helping them gain ground on Matt DiBenedetto, who ranks 15th in the playoff standings with one regular-season race remaining. DiBenedetto finished 20th and 17th in the weekend doubleheader, finishing in the points in just one stage. He’s now just five points ahead of Byron and nine ahead of Johnson.

The 16-driver playoff field will be settled after Saturday’s regular-season finale, the Coke Zero Sugar 400 (7:30 p.m. ET on NBC/NBC Sports App, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) at Daytona International Speedway. Ten drivers have clinched playoff berths with regular-season wins, and three more clinched on the basis of points after the Dover weekend — leaving three berths to be filled at Daytona.

Both Byron and Johnson rallied from different forms of adversity. For Johnson, it was a pit-road speeding penalty Sunday on the 102nd of 311 laps that forced him to drive back into contention from 31st place. For Byron, it was Sunday’s cumulative comeback from a subpar 28th-place Saturday run that helped him keep postseason pace.

“It was like a completely different race car and completely different race for us today compared to yesterday,” said Byron, who finished third and sixth at the stage breaks to pad his points cushion. “… 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.”

A new wild-card winner from outside the top 15 in standings at Daytona would take away another playoff berth on the basis of points, adding another layer of unpredictability for Saturday’s 400-miler to the fickle nature of superspeedway racing.

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Johnson remained in the picture at one of his best tracks, home to 11 of his 83 career wins. When crew chief Cliff Daniels became the lone gambler among the front-runners by opting for just two fresh tires on the No. 48 Chevrolet’s final pit stop, Johnson briefly vaulted to the lead, lining up outside of eventual race winner Kevin Harvick.

Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. slipped by him shortly after the restart, but Johnson was able to keep Byron at bay for third, lauding his crew chief’s strategy play on the team communications on the cool-down lap.

“We had a really good car and I really credit Cliff for making that brave call for two tires,” Johnson said. “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, 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 wish there was more there, but a great couple days here in Dover.”

Johnson’s playoff fate for his final Cup Series campaign now rests in Daytona, a venue where he’s won three times — most recently with a season sweep of the track’s 2013 events. Johnson said he’s not overly concerned about the nerves involved, having been immersed in postseason tension in each of his seven title marches.

“I’ve been doing this too long to worry too much,” Johnson said. “Championship pressure, thankfully I’ve been through that a bunch of different times. Maybe that’s ‑‑ I guess actually maybe that’s where experience will play through for me this weekend and I’ll be able to keep my head on straight, think, keep my emotions in check and really race with a clear and open mind.”

DiBenedetto, meanwhile, was frank about his slide closer to the grasp of the Hendrick pair, lamenting his two midpack finishes at Dover and the possibility of approaching peril of Daytona.

“Dover killed us. We were pretty horrendous both days,” DiBenedetto said. “I just tried to make the most of it that we could and it just wasn’t much. It was the perfect storm of really losing a lot of points and having a rough weekend. Going to Daytona. I hate to be negative but if we were going somewhere else I would feel better about it because we have been pretty strong at most tracks aside from here. I have struggled here. Going to Daytona and the Fords are strong but I have ended up at the infield care center the last two years there. We keep getting caught up in everyone’s mess. I am going to sit and hope and pray all week that we can just come out of there clean and make the playoffs.”