CONCORD, N.C. -- Rick Hendrick is ready for the playoffs. The Hendrick Motorsports team owner has three of his drivers in the 2020 postseason after Chase Elliott, William Byron and Alex Bowman all secured their berths through wins.
Byron’s win was especially momentous. The 22-year-old driver won at Daytona in overtime last Saturday, snatching the final win of the regular season and propelling himself to ninth place in the playoff standings.
“That was quite a race,” Hendrick said on SiriusXM. “I was watching TV. Jimmie (Johnson) was in. Jimmie was out. And boy, William made some unbelievable moves there at the end. I’m so proud of him. The kid has really worked hard and (seeing crew chief) Chad (Knaus) back in victory lane again was a special moment.”
The Daytona race was bittersweet for Hendrick Motorsports. While Byron’s win automatically put him in the playoffs, seven-time champion Johnson was out.
Johnson’s final season as a full-time driver has not gone according to plan. He was disqualified from the 600-mile race at Charlotte in May, wiping out a second-place finish. He then missed the race at Indianapolis due to a positive COVID-19 test. Johnson would have made the playoffs from either of these races since he was a mere six points under the playoff cutline.
To top it off, Johnson finished in 17th in Daytona after he was collected in a massive accident while he was running in fourth place in the final laps.
“Oh man. I can’t tell you the pressure and stress of wanting to see him in (the playoffs) in his last year,” Hendrick said of Johnson. “He’d run so well to make up almost two races. And then the wrecks, you watch your cars come through the wrecks and William slid through a couple of them – I don’t know how – and you just almost close your eyes when there’s an accident and waiting to see if your car came through without any damage. With everything riding on the outcome and having it at Daytona it made it twice as much nerves and pressure than it has been. It was unbelievable.”
Despite an almost unfair ending to Johnson’s regular season, he made sure to congratulate Byron and his former crew chief Knaus for making it to the postseason. The gesture was not unnoticed by Hendrick and the rest of the NASCAR community.
“I called him right after the race and said, ‘Man, what class.’ And I was just getting tons of text messages and emails and almost all of them started off with, ‘Boy, J.J. has so much class.’ So professional. Always positive. Complimentary of teammates or NASCAR. He’s just an amazing individual,” Hendrick said.
Hendrick continued to sing praises of Johnson, adding it’s an extremely rare occasion to see the 44-year-old driver lose his temper. He also believes Johnson won’t end his final year without a victory.
“I feel good about the playoffs,” Hendrick said. “The teams are working well together. I feel that we have momentum. I think you are going to see Jimmie win a race here pretty quickly, too. All the other guys have won this year. I think we are building momentum at the right time.”