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Jimmie Johnson: Stressful Duel Finish 'Put a Year or Two on Me'

JJ Yeley and the No. 44 NY Racing team made Jimmie Johnson sweat it out in the closing laps of Thursday's Bluegreen Vacation Duel at Daytona, but the NASCAR legend and LEGACY MOTOR CLUB driver/co-owner was able to squeak his way into the Daytona 500 field.

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hero image for Jimmie Johnson: Stressful Duel Finish 'Put a Year or Two on Me'

It's certainly not how he drew it up, but seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson made a frantic last-lap surge in Thursday night's Bluegreen Vacations Duel to secure his place in the field for the 2024 Daytona 500.

He had to rally and was fortunate to catch a break which allowed him to scoot by JJ Yeley as he marched to the finish line to transfer into the starting field for The Great American Race. But he's in the Daytona 500.

Before the most stressful situation of his illustrious NASCAR Cup Series career, Johnson said the day had a much different tone.

"[I had a] Very optimistic kind of light day," Johnson detailed in his post-race press conference. And as I put my suit on in my bus before I walked out, the weight of the situation hit me, and butterflies started to kick up."

It had finally sunk in. Despite being a NASCAR Hall of Famer, despite being tied for the most NASCAR Cup Series championships all-time, and despite being an 83-time NASCAR Cup Series race winner, Johnson was on the chopping block. He had to execute or for the first time in his NASCAR Cup Series career, he would be going home.

Then, the race started, and Johnson found some relief.

"Once we settled in at the start of the race, I felt really good with my car. We had a really fast car. And was able to drive from the back to the front," Johnson said.

However, he just couldn't get past that sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach.

While running inside the top-five at the mid-way point of the rade, Johnson said, "Something just ran through my mind, I'm like, 'It's not over.' We have a pit stop, we have the end of the race, who knows what is going to happen. Just keep my guard up. Sure enough, I had two or three different moments that were quite challenging that maybe put a year or two on me."

Johnson was involved in a multi-car crash on Lap 51. While things got hairy, Johnson says fortune smiled down upon him.

"Yeah, there was a moment there where I wasn't sure who was behind us, and I thought I was going to get cleaned out," Johnson admitted. "But I didn't see what started it. I knew that we slowed up. It was an accordion effect. As that happened, Austin and I touched and we both kind of wiggled a bit. We almost had it saved. There was another car ahead of Austin, I'm not sure who it was, but then they both came across my nose. I went across the apron pretty hard, so I'm hopeful the car is still straight and not too tore up underneath. But that was probably the toughest impact the car made, transitioning onto the flat."

After the crash, Johnson now found himself on an even playing field with Yeley, who despite struggling in qualifying, had a really solid NY Racing car in Thursday's Duel.

In the closing laps, Johnson and Yeley traded the Daytona 500 transfer position multiple times, and with two laps to go, both drivers were side-by-side. But as they came down to one lap to go, Johnson had lost his momentum, and on the final lap, Johnson's quest to make the Daytona 500 looked bleak, to say the least.

"I literally went down the back straightaway and it was the white flag, I could see the 44 car in front of me. He's like four or five [cars] ahead. [Martin Truex Jr.] is pulled out to help me. But he's so far back, he's not going to get to me in time. I'm like, 'I'm not going to make it. I'm not going to make the Daytona 500. I'm going to have to call all of our partners. I'm going to have to stand in the suite, shake hands during the 500, and not drive a car.'

Then, just as it appeared all hope was lost, Ross Chastain lost his momentum and shot back toward Johnson and Yeley. Yeley knifed to the high side of the track to get around Chastain. Johnson did the only thing he could, he pushed Chastain in hopes that he could help the No. 1 car gain enough momentum to hang Yeley out of the draft.

It worked.

"An almost wreck happens and it's leave it on the floor and hope for the best, and just went the other direction than JJ's car, and it just worked out," Johnson recalled.

While Johnson ultimately won the war, Yeley put up one hell of a battle, and he pushed the legendary driver to the limit. After an incredibly hard-fought battle in the closing laps, Johnson approached his adversary, who was still buckled in his car on pit road.

"We still had helmets on, so I shook his hand, and that was the Duel," Johnson said. "We had elbows out. I'm not sure if it was picked up, but we had some pretty good contact down the front straightaway. Just elbows out. It was like being on a short track, but we're here at Daytona. He raced as hard as he could, and I respect the effort he put out, and everything they did to try to make the race. We just cycled ahead there at the end."

Johnson may be a 48-year-old, who feels like he's 50 following Thursday's Duel Qualifier, but the driver of the No. 84 LEGACY MOTOR CLUB Toyota Camry XSE is officially back in the Daytona 500. And if his team can get the underbody components fixed up from his spin, Johnson showed he had a car capable of competing near the front.

Hell, he could very well win the Daytona 500. How crazy is that? Johnson had to scratch and claw his way just to start the race, but in a few days, we could be asking him where he's going to put his third Harley J. Earl trophy.

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