Johnson Among The ‘Race-In’ Crowd For Daytona Duels

Johnson

Jimmie Johnson at Daytona Int'l Speedway. (Michael Levitt/LAT for Toyota Racing photo)

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – It’s not often that seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson finds himself in an unfamiliar position, but that’s the case going into Thursday night’s Bluegreen Vacation Duel qualifying races at Daytona Int’l Speedway.

For the first time in his career, Johnson does not enter the Duels locked into the Daytona 500 starting field, meaning he’ll either have to race his way in or hope that one of the two locked-in open drivers – Anthony Alfredo or David Ragan – does so after 150 miles at the World Center of Racing.

In his debut start in the Great American Race in 2002, Johnson wasn’t safe via car owner points as a rookie driver but qualified on the pole, guaranteeing him the best seat in the house come race day.

For the remainder of his full-time Cup Series career, Johnson could breathe easily, either by virtue of the owner point or provisional rules at the time or via the NASCAR Charter system, introduced in 2016 to guarantee 36 full-time teams a spot in the field at every race on the premier series calendar.

Last year, in his return to the Daytona 500 as a driver and co-owner of Legacy Motor Club, Johnson locked in via his qualifying speed Wednesday night and didn’t have to sweat the Duels either.

That makes this go-round at Daytona “uncharted territory” for the 48-year-old from El Cajon, Calif.

“I’ve never been in this position, so I don’t know [how to approach the Duels],” admitted Johnson following qualifying Wednesday night. “I came down here mentally prepared to race my way in if that was required. I’m well studied. I spent a lot of time working on the environment of the Duels and the way the race might unfold. We just have to get out there, race hard, and see how it unfolds.”

Johnson’s single-lap time of 50.323 seconds (178.845 mph) with the No. 84 Carvana Toyota Camry XSE was more than a tenth of a second off the time posted by RFK Racing’s David Ragan, who was only 27th overall but ranked second among the six non-chartered teams to secure his Daytona 500 starting spot.

It was a bit of a surprise to Johnson, whose Legacy Motor Club teammate Erik Jones was best of the nine Toyota drivers on the grounds, 22nd (50.101/179.637) of the 42 entries for the Great American Race.

“I had higher expectations for sure, but we are lumped right there with the other Toyotas,” noted Johnson. The 43 car (of Jones) got a little more out of it, so I wish we had [gotten] a bit more out of ours, but it is what it is. We will go out and race hard tomorrow night and try to make the 500.”

For all the situations that Johnson has found himself in over the years, is he nervous entering the Duels?

“Of course. [I’m] much more nervous now,” he admitted. “I thought we were going to be in a little bit better position than this, but it is what it is. We will go to work.”

Johnson starts 18th in the first Duel, and because of his qualifying time, simply has to beat J.J. Yeley in order to guarantee himself a spot in the 40-grid for the 66th Daytona 500.

Even if Alfredo bests Johnson in Duel No. 1, that would allow Johnson to use his qualifying speed to make the Great American Race on Sunday. Yeley’s only option is to race his way in.

Front Row Motorsports’ Kaz Grala is in a similar predicament to Yeley, as he has to race his way in Thursday night or go home and watch the Daytona 500 from his couch Sunday afternoon.

Grala’s qualifying run was over before it started, with a shifter issue preventing the No. 36 Ford Mustang Dark Horse from turning a lap at speed around the 2.5-mile superspeedway.

“Never got out of second gear,” Grala radioed to his Front Row Motorsports crew as he limped around on the apron of the racetrack. “When I went to pull it, the shifter was just dead and loose … it’s not attached to anything. The lever was completely disconnected.”

Grala’s crew went to work on repairs into the night, but the one confidence boost that he has is that his FRM teammate Michael McDowell qualified on the front row for the Daytona 500 in second.

That puts McDowell in a position to push Grala – potentially into a Daytona 500 starting spot – during the second Duel Thursday night.

“That will be a part of it. It will be very important to get that 36 in the race tomorrow night,” said McDowell following Busch Light Pole Qualifying. “Anything that we can do to help him do that, we're going to try to do for a lot of reasons.

“Three [cars] is better than two when it comes down to needing teammates and working together at the end of these [superspeedway] races,” McDowell continued. “Unfortunately, we had a little mechanical issue on that 36 car, but it's going to have plenty of speed. We just need to make sure that we do everything we can to help him get in.”

Grala will be battling Ragan and B.J. McLeod in Duel No. 2 for the race-in position to the Daytona 500. McLeod does have a pathway to use his qualifying speed to make the race, but that would require both Alfredo and Ragan racing their way into the Daytona 500 through the Duel qualifying races.

That would give Johnson and McLeod the two qualifying speed positions on the grid in 39th and 40th.

The first Bluegreen Vacations Duel at Daytona Int’l Speedway is slated for a 7 p.m. ET green flag, with race coverage live on FS1, the Motor Racing Network, and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio, channel 90.

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About Jacob Seelman

Jacob Seelman is Motorsports Hotspot’s News Editor and Race Face Digital’s Director of Content, as well as a veteran of more than a decade in the racing industry as a professional, though he’s spent his entire life in the garage and pit area.