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Jimmie Johnson uses desperate late push to qualify for his 21st Daytona 500

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — The panic set in for Jimmie Johnson on the final lap of his qualifying race for the Daytona 500. The seven-time NASCAR champion and newest Hall of Fame inductee recognized he was dangerously close to missing the cut for “The Great American Race.”

Johnson, now co-owner of Legacy Motor Club, didn’t have the speed in time trials to earn a spot Wednesday in the season-opening race. It meant he had to race his way into the 40-car field Thursday night at Daytona International Speedway.

He only needed to beat J.J. Yeley in the qualifying race — and Yeley was driving a car that barely even made it to Daytona and only announced Yeley as the driver Wednesday, two days after Greg Biffle said he had pulled out as the driver over non-payment from 2022.

But a late spin put Johnson in a precarious position, and the desperation set in on the backstretch of the last lap. He knew he needed help from another driver, understood how challenging his final two turns would be, and yet his mind was racing about what would happen if he failed to qualify

“I’m like, ‘I’m not going to make it, not going to make the Daytona 500,’” Johnson said. “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 — ‘I have to figure out a way.’”

He pulled it off with a three-wide move through the final turn that has Johnson locked into his 21st Daytona 500. Johnson won the race twice, in 2006 and 2013, while driving for Hendrick Motorsports.

Tyler Reddick of 23XI Racing won the 150-mile race that is part of how the field is set Sunday for the season opener. Christopher Bell of Joe Gibbs Racing won the second race as Toyota swept the two duels.

Kaz Grala in a Ford for Front Row Motorsports earned the final spot in the race in the second qualifier by finishing higher than B.J. McLeod, who had a guaranteed spot in the field until Live Fast Motorsports sold its charter to Spire Motorsports at the end of last season.

“That was so much more stressful than it needed to be for us,” Grala said. “We looked to be in good shape and then we had some trouble on pit road. Really cool to be able to get in the show. This is a big opportunity for me here.”

Johnson, meanwhile, put the 500 on what he expects to be a nine-race schedule this season. In his second season as co-owner of Legacy, Johnson switched the team from Chevrolet to Toyota.

But the Toyotas lacked speed in time trials and backed Johnson into a difficult situation Thursday night.

“I’ve never been through anything like this. In my first year down here, we fortunately won the pole,” Johnson said of his 2002 Daytona 500 debut. “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.”

A Johnson spin with 11 laps remaining put him in danger and set up a restart with six laps remaining. Yeley was 14th, Johnson was 18th and desperately begging for a partner to line up behind the No. 84 Toyota and help push him past Yeley.

The help didn’t come until the closing seconds.

Martin Truex Jr., a fellow Toyota driver, dropped back to give Johnson some aid. Ross Chastain then checked up in traffic and Yeley dipped into an outside line to try to get around Chastain. With the push from Truex, Johnson slid into the center lane behind Chastain and the trio sailed past Yeley to the finish line.

“Going into Turn 3, I was not counting my chickens but I was getting close,” Yeley said. “Saw there was some contact. Someone in the middle (Chastain) lost a lot of momentum and I just made a split-second decision to go to the outside, try to carry the momentum. He stayed in the middle, (Truex) pushed him, the momentum just pushed him all the way to the checkered flag.”

Johnson, meanwhile, said missing out on the Daytona 500 might not have been the most embarrassing moment of his career — he said that was when he broke his wrist while surfing on top of a golf cart. But the pressure to make the race was heavier than he expected.

“Disappointment would have been really, really high. Embarrassment? I think we raced really well. We did a lot of things right,” Johnson said. “I think I could have hung my hat on that. We really were fast enough and raced really well. I just would have been really disappointed. I think I’m identifying with the fact that there’s a lot more riding on my performance in the car these days than when I was a full-time driver. Not only my own personal goals of being a driver, but what’s going on as being a team owner, trying to help grow a race team. There’s a lot more weight on it.

“If you would have asked me that question this morning, I wouldn’t have this point of view or be able to reflect on it,” Johnson added. “I had to go through this experience to understand it.”

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AP auto racing: https://apnews.com/hub/auto-racing

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