DAYTONA BEACH, Fla.—Jimmie Johnson thought he had missed the boat.
Last to leave pit road during the cat-and-mouse waiting game in the third and final round of Sunday’s knockout qualifying session at Daytona, Johnson felt he had little chance to make it back to the start/finish line before time expired.
Having run the fastest lap in the second round, Johnson initially was in no hurry. If no one got to the stripe in time to run a valid timed lap, Johnson would win the pole for the Daytona 500 by default. But when Martin Truex Jr. left pit road with about a minute remaining in the session, and other cars followed, Johnson began to worry.
He was last to leave pit road, falling in behind Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon.
“We had some cues, timing marks, what we thought we needed to leave pit road at,” Johnson said. “That time came and went. I really felt like no one was going to get back in time, and I would be on pole position…
“As we were making the lap, we got up to speed, through the gears, covered so much territory, they’re giving me my cues, I think most are going to make it, and I’m in a position where I’m not going to make it.”
For Johnson, the waiting game was a risk/reward situation.
“We knew what the risks were,” he said. “In order to get the pole, you’ve got to take a big chance. That could be front row or 12th, but 12th at a plate track is not the end of the world. We were willing to take the risk and gamble to be there.
“We made it around faster than I thought we could. I thought I was out. I thought I was going to miss the cutoff on the time.”
As it turned out, however, Johnson made it to the start/finish line as time expired, and he earned the outside front-row starting position beside Gordon, who won the pole for his last running of the Daytona 500.