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Bubble battle packs Playoff punch at Daytona

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (August 28, 2020) – This weekend’s NASCAR Cup Series race at Daytona International Speedway carries an even higher sense of expectations and impending action for Cup teams.

Back under the lights on Saturday at the 2.5-mile trioval, this one sets the 2020 Playoff field. Drivers like Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick and Joey Lagano are good to go based off victories.

However, a seven-time champion like Jimmie Johnson, his young teammate William Byron and the never-won-a-race Matt DiBenedetto have just one more chance to solidify their Playoff berth.

Making the task even more daunting is the fact Daytona, being a plate race, is known to take a driver from the penthouse to the outhouse in one fateful moment.

Heading into Saturday night’s green flag, DiBenedetto has a mere nine-point buffer over the cutoff, Bryan has four and Johnson is outside looking in by four.

Johnson, the same Jimmie Johnson who has tied NASCAR Hall of Famers Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty with seven championships? The same one people used to say “Oh man, the No. 48 car won again?!”

Yes, that’s him.

His crew chief, Cliff Daniels, knows what needs to be done to make the Playoffs, and likes the fact Johnson is the wheelman to make it happen.

“Right now, my goal is to win both stages and win the race,” Daniels said. “That takes care of everything. But I promise you, we all know Jimmie Johnson and he’s going to be scratching and clawing for every spot no matter what.

“And, if we’re second or if we’re 12th or 22nd, it doesn’t matter what it is. He’s going to be trying to pass the guy ahead of him.

“It’s a speedway race. There are so many unknowns. All we can do is control what we’re able to. Work with our teammates and have a good plan for the race. The chips are going to fall where they may.

“I’m proud of the resilience that we’ve showed throughout the year to keep ourselves on the rails. And yeah, we’re in a tough spot, but we’re going to go race them hard on Saturday night.”

Byron Will Battle – Respectively

Byron and the No. 24 Chevrolet team have crew chief Chad Knaus on the pit box, the same person who led Johnson to all seven of his titles. The young driver knows what’s at stake Saturday night, but that doesn’t mean he’s going to take out his teammate to solidify his Playoff position.

“Jimmie is the guy that I looked up to as a kid,” Byron said. “I was really a 48 fan through and through. I’ve got a lot of 48 stuff at my parent’s house and a lot of different diecast cars.

“But, 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 both of us in. Jimmie is an awesome competitor and somebody I really look up to.”

Because they are teammates at Hendrick Motorsports, Bryon is confident in his abilities at Daytona and sees both he and Johnson making the Playoffs.

“You always have a chance to do well or even for things to go wrong,” Byron said. “The track doesn’t really owe you anything. I’ve had some great results. I’ve won at Daytona in the Xfinity Series and I won the Duel this year to start the season.

“I think we have a chance and an opportunity to get both Hendrick cars in and be able to bump the No. 21 out. Speedways are really unpredictable. It’s all situational, so hopefully we’re together at the end and we can push each other to the lead and hopefully finish 1-2.”

Matty D Looking for First Playoff Berth

The path DiBenedetto took to the Cup ranks has been well documented, and followed by his growing fan base. From part-time seasons to underdog rides to almost wins to being replaced after his best season.

Now driving the historic No. 21 Ford for Wood Brothers Racing with technical backing from Team Penske, he, his wife and family are all hoping Saturday night ends well.

Prior to the Dover Double last weekend, DiBendetto had a 44-point cushion. When that ended on Sunday, he saw the cushion depleted to just the nine markers after finishes of 20th and 17th, respectively.

“Because of my path to get here, I appreciate all the little things a whole lot more and this is a big thing,” he said about the Playoffs. “If, and hopefully we make the playoffs, I know my wife would be just absolutely in tears crying. It would be a very special moment for us that just kind of is a small glimpse into the appreciation that we would have as a family for just making the playoffs.

“The path to get here has really consisted of a lot of fighting and clawing and the little things that make you appreciative, so, yeah, it’s a big deal. But, also that was the goal going into the season with a good team here that we knew we could make it into the playoffs.”

Like his follow competitors, he knows there is only so much a driver, spotter and crew chief can control during a Daytona race. They can worry themselves senseless, or not.

“It’s just taught me that all I can do is worry about what I can control because there are always going to be things that are out of my control, DiBenedetto said. “I really just can’t sit and worry about too much. Daytona is just kind of a crazy race.

“So, as my dad put it this week he was like, ‘Do the best you can and the rest of it is going to be in God’s hands.’ ”

The final 16 drivers for the 2020 Playoffs will be decided starting at 7:30 p.m. ET on NBC-TV, MRN and Sirius XM NASCAR Radio.

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