DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – After winning the 2006 Daytona 500 this race has been nothing but an albatross for five-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson.
But on the day of his 400th career Cup start Johnson was able to achieve redemption with victory in Sunday’s 55th Daytona 500.
Johnson’s Chevrolet finished 0.129-seconds ahead of Hendrick Motorsports teammate Dale Earnhardt, Jr., who finished second for the third time in the last four years. It’s the third time Hendrick Motorsports has finished 1-2 in the Daytona 500.
Mark Martin’s Toyota was third followed by Brad Keselowski’s Ford, Ryan Newman’s Chevrolet, Greg Biffle’s Ford and Kurt Busch’s Chevrolet.
And the eighth-place finisher earned plenty of attention as Danica Patrick started on the pole, ran in the top three for most of the race before getting shuffled back on the final lap. But the GoDaddy Girl proved that she can compete at this level and for much of the race was a legitimate contender for the victory.
One day after 28 spectators were sent to area hospitals during a horrific crash in the Nationwide Series race, Sunday’s Daytona 500 was nearly flawless in terms of safety giving NASCAR and Daytona officials a much-needed change of the storyline.
There was a crash at the back of the pack entering Turn 1 of the final lap but NASCAR officials did not throw the green flag allowing Johnson to battle it out to the checkered flag.
When Johnson won his first Daytona 500 in 2006 he went to victory lane without crew chief Chad Knaus, who had been sent home by NASCAR officials for cheating during inspection one week earlier. On Sunday, Knaus finally got to celebrate a Daytona 500 win in Daytona Victory Lane.
That win way back in 2006 was followed by many years of terrible finishes in NASCAR’s biggest race. Johnson was 39th in 2007, 27th in 2008, 31st in 2009, 35th in 2010, 27th in 2011 and 42nd last year.
The Daytona 500 wasn’t a “monkey on Johnson’s back” it was a “gorilla.”
“Plate racing is an awfully tough form of racing and there’s a lot of luck involved,” said Johnson, who became the 10th driver to win more than one Daytona 500. “Pack racing is a little different. You can’t ride and wait for things to happen. You have to race all day long and fight for track position. This race car, this Lowe’s Chevrolet was so good. Chad Knaus and all of Hendrick Motorsports had me a fast car and I could really stay up front all day long. I had a lot of confidence in the final few laps leading the train, so I knew just how fast the car was. So big credit to everybody at Hendrick Motorsports.
“We wanted to get this car to the 500. We knew it was the best car for us and very happy to have it in the 500 and it certainly did its job for us. I just want to give a big shout out to all the fans and also want to send my thoughts and prayers out to everybody yesterday who were injured in the grandstands. I’m very happy to win the first Gen-6 car race in the Gen-6 car for Chevrolet in their SS. Awesome day.”
The 61st victory of Johnson’s Cup career was worth $1,525,275. Second-place wasn’t too bad of a check for Earnhardt, either as he collected $1,104,814.
Johnson is the sixth driver to win in his 400th start. The others were Lee Petty, Richard Petty, David Pearson, Dave Marcis and Dale Earnhardt.
Earnhardt got a boost from Martin in an attempt to try to wrest the lead from Johnson on the final lap.
“I couldn’t have done much without Mark helping me here at the end,” Earnhardt said. “I was hoping he was thinking what I was thinking as we come off of turn two on that last lap. I felt like we needed to make the move a little earlier than off of four. I kept backing up, backing up, trying not to let guys get racing behind us too much. If somebody ducked out of line a couple rows behind Mark. I was going to have a gap, me and Mark could take off, not get hung up with those guys. Once we come off of two, mashed the gas, got a run on Danica, side‑drafted her a little bit. I don’t know why them guys didn’t pull down in front of me besides Jimmie, but we got through three and four with a pretty good run.
“Once we come to turn four, we kind of run out of steam, didn’t have enough to get a run on Jimmie. But I’m real happy with the way the car run all day. You couldn’t pass much. But when I was able to really see what my car could do, it was plenty capable of winning the race. The guys did a good job all winter trying to prepare for running well. We got 1‑2 out of our shop. Really happy with Hendrick and all our effort.”
Martin, who lives in nearby Spruce Creek, came close to getting his first Daytona 500 win.
“We just wanted a shot at it with two laps to go and things had shuffled differently perhaps we would have gotten it,” Martin said. “We had a great run on Jr. but Brad was too far behind me to give me a push.”
Keselowski’s Ford was involved in two earlier incidents but the wounded car allowed the defending Sprint Cup champion to finish in the top five.
“We were fortunate to make it through some of the wrecks today but damn, I want to win this race,” Keselowski said. “It wasn’t in the cards today but I’m lucky to get through all of that.”
Biffle was second at the white flag but finished sixth.
“I started backing up to Danica but the 48 car (Johnson) was backing up too,” Biffle said. “The bottom didn’t really work today but he was able to get a big run down there.”
As the pole sitter Patrick had the choice of which lane to start the race and she chose the outside line which allowed Gordon to get the lead at the start of the race. But instead of fading back in the field, Patrick hung tough with the lead group of cars for most of the race.
It didn’t take long before a major crash coming of lap 34 as Kasey Kahne got turned by Austin Dillon triggering a multi-car crash that included Kevin Harvick, Tony Stewart, Brad Keselowski, Kyle Busch, Jamie McMurray, Kurt Busch and Juan Pablo Montoya entering Turn 1.
“I wanted to race,” Kahne said. “I didn’t want to run single-file by the wall. That’s what we were doing and you still got caught in something. I really don’t know how it happened like that. I understand how that happens but it’s restrictor-plate racing and anything can happen here.”
That crash ended Stewart’s hopes of winning the Daytona 500 for the first time in his career and took out Harvick, one of the big favorites to win the race.
“The hell with the season, I wanted to win the Daytona 500,” Stewart said. “We had a car that we could pass with today. We were passing cars by our self so. I was happy with our car, was just waiting for it to all get sorted out again. I don’t know what started it, but we just got caught up in another wreck.”
After another caution period for debris on lap 86, two-time Daytona 500 winner Michael Waltrip was in front when the green flag waved on Lap 90 and Patrick was able to blast past Waltrip’s Toyota to take the lead – the second time a female driver has ever led a NASCAR Sprint Cup race. Janet Guthrie led five laps under caution in 1977 at Ontario Motor Speedway so Patrick is the first female driver to lead green flag laps in Sprint Cup. She is also the only female to every lead laps in the Indianapolis 500.
The lead was short-lived, however, as Hamlin took over the front on lap 92.
Matt Kenseth dominated the race, leading four times for 86 laps in the Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota before transmission problems knocked him out of the race on Lap 148.
“Obviously, we have to work and make it to the end of these races – you can’t drop out and win championships,” said last year’s Daytona 500 winner. “It’s disappointing obviously, but it’s also really encouraging. I thought we did all the right things. We had a great pit stop right there at the end — I thought Jason (Ratcliff, crew chief) had a great pit stop there at the end when we needed it. He just had a great strategy. Our Toyota was really fast. We had all the right things – we just didn’t make it to the end. Those are things we can fix. Really excited with how we ran and really thankful to be part of this team and just looking forward to getting to Phoenix.”
Keselowski, involved in two earlier crashes, was in the lead on lap 175. Truex, a main contender for the victory, had his Toyota engine blow up on lap 176 foiling his big for the Daytona 500 win. Jeff Burton’s Chevrolet slammed into the frontstretch wall on Lap 177 after an incident with Reutimann for caution period No. 5. That put Scott Speed into the lead before he pitted.
Keselowski led the field to the flag to restart the race on lap 181 with 25 cars on the lead lap. Biffle pushed Keselowski to the lead and Patrick followed Biffle into third place with 18 laps to go.
Johnson was able to take the low line to the lead with 14 laps to go as Patrick dropped to fifth in the outside lane. Keselowski’s wounded car retook the lead as Johnson got shuffled back to third with Patrick fourth, Hamlin fifth and Earnhardt sixth with 10 laps to go.
With nine laps to go the yellow flag waved just as Johnson took the lead over Keselowski. The debris hit Johnson’s center grille on the backstretch.
With six laps go to Johnson shot to the lead over Biffle followed by Keselowski and Patrick setting up the decisive fight to the finish. And while Patrick hung tough and remained in contention for the victory heading to the white flag, she got shuffled back on the final lap to finish eighth but drove an extremely impressive Daytona 500.
“I ran up front all day long and we led a little,” Patrick said. “We stayed in the top-10 all day pretty much, had nice pit stops by the GoDaddy crew, the car was fast and it’s always a little frustrating when you come through and your top three on that last lap. I will learn more for next time.
“I really didn’t feel like I had a great grasp as to ‘how do you go win this race’. I hadn’t wrapped my head around exactly how that was going to happen. I kept thinking about it out there because for the most part I was running half throttle for most of the race running in the line. I will know better for next time and for Talladega. I mean the same stuff will probably apply. Good job Jimmie (Johnson) we got a Chevy to win so that is good.”
While Patrick achieved an historical first Johnson proved why he is a driver for the ages with his victory. Although he led four times for just 17 laps he knew the right time to put his No. 48 in position to win NASCAR’s biggest race.
“I think it goes all the way back to when the caution came out and the fact that we were in the lead and gave me lane choice,” Johnson said. “The outside lane worked in most situations. When I had lane choice I knew that we were set up to win the race and it was up to me to not make a mistake and blow it.
“This Lowe’s Chevrolet was so fast. Chad did an amazing job. We stuck to our plan all week long. We knew it was a very fast race car and it would race well.
“We got that done here today.”