INDIANAPOLIS – William Byron’s boyhood idol was Jimmie Johnson, the seven-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion whose career has made him one of racing’s all-time greats.
And ironically, it was a squeeze job by Byron in turn two Sunday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway that put Johnson’s No. 48 Chevrolet into the outside wall and ended one of NASCAR’s most historic streaks.
The contact between Byron and Johnson caused an eight-car crash on lap 105 of Sunday’s Big Machine Vodka 400 at the Brickyard and effectively ended Johnson’s chance at making the NASCAR Playoffs.
When the field of 16 drivers convenes at Las Vegas (Nev.) Motor Speedway next weekend to begin the 10-race battle that will culminate with NASCAR’s championship race at Homestead-Miami (Fla.) Speedway, Johnson will not be one of them.
It’s the first time in Johnson’s career that he has missed the playoffs since the 10-race system was created in 2004, a span of 15 consecutive postseason appearances.
“Yeah, it’s really disappointing,” Johnson said after he was checked and released from the IU Health Infield Care Center. “Unfortunately, we had a bad 25 races that led to the position we’re in here today and we needed a stellar day. I think we were having a strong day. I’m really proud of my team with what’s been going on. The No. 1 car (Kurt Busch) had a little trouble on the restart. I’m on the inside going into the corner and it was just super tight. It’s unfortunate that happened. Certainly, it’s not what we needed on that restart.
“I couldn’t go below the white line and kind of got snipped there and turned around, and around and around we went.”
Byron’s talent and potential were reasons why he was chosen by team owner Rick Hendrick to replace Jeff Gordon in the No. 24 Chevrolet at Hendrick Motorsports.
And though Byron went on to finish fourth in the Brickyard 400, he felt terrible after the race for what happened to his hero.
“With Jimmie and I, it was a racing thing,” Byron said. “I really didn’t have anywhere to go. Once Kurt (Busch) slipped by and we were three wide, I was trying to give him enough room and not slide up into Jimmie but unfortunately there just wasn’t enough room.
“Maybe I gave an inch too much room to the 1 and an inch less room to the 48 (Jimmie Johnson). I hate, with the circumstances with him, that happened. But it wasn’t intentional. I was just trying to give room to all the guys around me. It’s tough when you’re three-wide. It’s tough. The angle into that corner is tough.
“Turn one is tough here, but two is when the RPMs get wound up. I hate it for his team.”
To imagine a NASCAR Playoff without Johnson is like the College Football Playoffs without Alabama or the NFL Playoffs without the New England Patriots.
For Johnson, the unthinkable finally happened.
“Well, first of all, I think it’s pretty impressive the run we’ve been on to be in the Playoffs for this many consecutive years,” Johnson said. “I’m not sure who is close, but I don’t think they’re very close. So, we have that to be proud of. Sure, we wanted it to continue on, but the goal is to win a race.
“This team is getting stronger each and every week and (crew chief) Cliff Daniels is doing an amazing job of leading this group of Ally’s, and we’re ready to roll. We’ll dust ourselves off and go to Vegas and try to get a trophy.”
Johnson has seen tremendous improvement from his No. 48 team, especially since Daniels has taken over as crew chief.
The rest of the season will be a chance for the duo to improve, maybe win a race, and get ready for a playoff run in 2020.
“I’m sleeping easier,” Johnson said regarding his increase in speed over the past few weeks. “I can’t wait to have the results start showing up. Months ago, it was tough because we couldn’t really get anything going our way. Now we have the optimism of strong qualifying sessions, strong race cars, and races.
“We just need to get to the finish line now.”