The Coke Zero Sugar 400 ended in disappointment for two drivers many fans wanted to see in the playoffs.
Darrell Wallace Jr. and Jimmie Johnson finished fifth and 17th, respectively, in Saturday’s NASCAR Cup Series regular-season finale at Daytona International Speedway. Consequently, Wallace will have to wait at least another year to make his first playoff appearance, while Johnson, who plans to retire after this season, won’t have a chance to win a record eighth NASCAR championship.
This hardly was a case of either driver being way outside of the playoff picture, however. Both Wallace and Johnson had very real opportunities to use Saturday’s race to clinch playoff berths. Wallace entered the race basically needing a victory to qualify, whereas Johnson, winless since 2017, needed a strong showing coupled with relatively poor outings from either William Byron or Matt DiBenedetto — or both.
Wallace led late in the race before suffering damages in a wreck and falling back to 20th for a restart with two laps left. The 26-year-old Richard Petty Motorsports driver clawed back to earn his first top-five finish of the season. Johnson’s hopes were erased when Byron, his Hendrick Motorsports teammate, won the race (first victory of his career) and DiBenedetto finished 12th.
The rising star and elder statesman took to Twitter after the race.
While Wallace’s failure to qualify certainly is disappointing for the No. 43 team and its fans, the real story is the 44-year-old Johnson, who finished six points out of the final spot and probably would’ve made the playoffs had he not been disqualified from a race earlier in the season and missed another due to a COVID-19 diagnosis.
“After a couple of beers and a flight home,” Johnson told reporters after the race, “I’m going to get a good night’s rest and try to shake it off tomorrow and just focus on the next race.”
“I knew the position we were in,” Johnson said. “So it’s not like this is a shock or a surprise. My emotions are what I would have expected. Definitely disappointed. We’ve been running well and running good.”
Here’s your 16-driver NASCAR Playoffs bracket:
There are 10 races remaining on the schedule meaning Wallace, Johnson, and all drivers who missed out on the playoffs still have plenty of time to make some noise.
Next up is Sunday’s Cook Out Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway.