Jimmie Johnson qualifies for Daytona 500 with thrilling last-ditch pass in final lap



Jimmie Johnson has had a lot of firsts in his NASCAR Hall of Fame career, and Thursday night he nearly added another — though this one would’ve been far more ignominious — as he nearly failed to qualify for the Daytona 500, something he’s never done. But Johnson secured his spot in Sunday’s race by completing a last-ditch pass coming to the checkered flag in his qualifying race.

On the final lap, Johnson was trailing J.J. Yeley for the final transfer position when a group of cars slowed ahead of Yeley, causing him to also slow. This provided Johnson the break he needed to narrowly pass Yeley.

Close call averted.

“I’ve never been through anything like this,” Johnson said. “In my first year down here, we fortunately won the pole. … To fight like we did in those closing laps, I mean, I’ve only done that for a race win here. Never had that level of anxiety and fight for a Duel or anything else except for a proper win.”

That Johnson would miss the Daytona 500 was a scenario most considered unlikely going into the first of two qualifying races that determine Sunday’s starting lineup.

Although Johnson is semi-retired, he is also a seven-time Cup Series winner who was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame last month with the might of Legacy Motor Club and Toyota behind him, while the journeyman Yeley just secured his ride Monday with NY Racing, a small, underfunded team who most everyone figured would be a non-factor.

Never in his Cup career has Johnson failed to qualify for a race, and missing the biggest on the NASCAR schedule would’ve been a blemish even with his part-time status. Afterward, Johnson admitted over the final few laps he was considering the fallout had he missed the Daytona 500.

“I’m literally going down the back straightaway, see (Yeley’s) car in front of me, he’s four or five ahead, and (Martin Truex Jr.) has pulled out to help me, but he’s so far back, he’s not going to get to me in time,” Johnson said. “I’m like, ‘I’m not going to make it, not going to make the Daytona 500. I’m going to have to call all our partners. I’m going to have to stand in the suite during the 500 and shake hands, not drive a car.’ This is running through my mind as I’m catching him. I have to figure out a way.”

Johnson entered Thursday’s qualifier needing to just finish ahead of Yeley to punch his ticket into the Daytona 500. And for the first 50 laps of the 60-lap race, Johnson was doing just that, well in control and never at much of Yeley passing.

Then, Johnson’s night — and his Daytona 500 prospects — took a significant downward turn when he was swept in a multi-car crash nine laps from the finish that he didn’t initiate.

Thankfully for Johnson, his No. 84 Toyota sustained minimal damage and he was able to drive away. But his spin allowed Yeley to pass him, setting off a frantic scramble when the race resumed with five laps remaining.

Yeley did everything he could to hold Johnson off, raising the level of desperation Johnson was feeling. Multiple times over his team’s radio, he pleaded with his team to find him a drafting partner to push him forward.

“It was intense,” Johnson said. “With probably three (laps) to go (Yeley) threw a great block on me on the front stretch and it kind of perked me up and I realized just what kind of battle I was in for in the closing laps. Hats off to them for the hard effort they put into this. This is not easy, and it stinks that a car has got to go home. They put up a heck of a fight and we’re fortunate to get in.”

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(Photo: John David Mercer / USA Today)





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