Jimmie Johnson wins 2nd Daytona 500
What a difference a year made for Jimmie Johnson.
After failing to complete two laps in last year’s Daytona 500, Johnson lit a fire on his bid for a sixth championship with his second-career victory in the “Great American Race”, beating out Dale Earnhardt, Jr. to capture the season-opening event for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
Johnson held on through a final five-lap charge facing down Greg Biffle and pole sitter Danica Patrick before Earnhardt, Jr. and Mark Martin made a run for the lead on the final lap, but Johnson’s no. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet had the inside line covered and held them off to notch his 61st-career Sprint Cup victory by 0.129sec and his first in the Daytona 500 since 2006 – the year he won the first of his five consecutive Sprint Cup titles.
Defending Sprint Cup Champion Brad Keselowski was fourth, followed by Ryan Newman. Patrick faded on the final lap to finish eighth.
With the victory, Johnson becomes the sixth driver to win in his 400th start, joining Lee Petty, Richard Petty, David Pearson, Dave Marcis and Dale Earnhardt.
“It is just awesome. There's no other way to describe it,” said Johnson. “400 starts, every one of those starts with Lowe's and Hendrick Motorsports. To be the first to win in a Gen-6 car, and that car is a Chevy SS, just a very proud moment.
"There is no other way to start the season than to win the Daytona 500. I'm a very lucky man to have won it twice. I'm very honored to be on that trophy with all the greats that have ever been in our sport.”
Johnson took the lead with nine laps to go after a spirited 12-lap side-by-side battle with Brad Keselowski, just clearing the no. 2 Miller Light Ford as they crossed the start-finish line when the caution flag waved for sixth time for debris.
When racing resumed, Johnson took off on the high side with Biffle, Patrick and Earnhardt, Jr. in tow as Keselowski faded to the inside.
The front four remained nose to tail as they came to the white flag just as a crash broke out on the backstretch. NASCAR kept the field under green, as Earnhardt, Jr. dived underneath Biffle and Patrick with Martin and Keselowski following.
Earnhardt, Jr., now running second, looked to have momentum as he came up on, but never had a chance to mount a final challenge for the lead as Johnson beat him to the line by a half car-length.
“We just had a lot of help from Mark Martin at the end,” said Earnhardt, Jr. “We were able to lay back until the last lap on the backstretch there to get enough of a run. We got by a couple of them, but I looked up in the mirror off of (turn) four and Mark (Martin) was back there racing those guys and I lost my help. So when we got to Jimmie (Johnson) we didn't have enough steam.”
Patrick, the first woman to win a pole for the season-opening event, held her own for much of the race, staying out of trouble and leading five laps – the first woman to do so in the Daytona 500 only the second in Sprint Cup history – looking poised to make run at the lead in the final laps, but then got hung out to dry after Earnhardt, Jr. pulled out of line behind her, leaving her and Biffle to free-fall back through the field to an eighth-place finish.
“Ran up front all day long and we led a little. We stayed in the top-10 all day pretty much,” said Patrick. “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.”
Patrick started on the pole but was quickly overhauled on the opening lap by outside pole-sitter Jeff Gordon, who side-drafted past Patrick to take the lead for the first 31 laps.
Lap 34 saw the first of three multi-car crashes, but the first one took out the most top contenders.
Running in fifth-place on the high side, Kasey Kahne got turned off the bumper of Kyle Busch, setting off a nine-car wreck that collected Sprint Unlimited and Budweiser Duel winner Kevin Harvick, Nationwide Series Daytona winner Tony Stewart, 2010 Daytona 500 winner Jamie McMurray , Juan Pablo Montoya and Casey Mears while Keselowski skated through with some damage.
Keselowski triggered the second incident of the race on lap 139 when he got sideways of the front bumper of 2011 Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne. Keselowski spun down to the turn one apron but got the car straightened out, while behind him Bayne spun and slid up the track, collecting Carl Edwards, Terry Labonte, Austin Dillon and David Ragan.
For Edwards, it was the fifth crash he’d been involved in at Daytona since January testing.
Sunday’s race also took a toll on the Toyota camp, as Matt Kenseth went from leading the race to the garage with mechanical problems, followed just two laps by his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch, who went out with engine failure. A short time later, Martin Truex, Jr. – driving a Toyota Camry for Michael Waltrip Racing – lost a cylinder while racing in the top five.
The Daytona 500 marked the first points race for the new Gen6 stock car - including new models for all three manufacturers – which was intended to promote more passing and better racing, eliminating the two-car drafting that had dominated restrictor-plate racing in the last two years.
Instead, much of the race was run as a single-file 200mph parade lap, with little passing and most of the lead changes occurring when drivers got shuffled out of line.
“One of the things that made it hard to pass was nobody would get organized on the bottom,” said third-place finisher Mark Martin. “The top groove was the preferred groove.
“The problem was that the car on the inside of the frontline wasn't the fastest car. If you would have had the fastest car in the field on the inside, you would have had a whale of a race there at the end.”
Fortunately, there were no incidents involving cars getting up into the catch-fence similar to Saturday’s crash in the Nationwide Series race, where the Chevrolet of Kyle Larson was catapulted into the fence in a crash on the final lap.
The crash sent debris from Larson’s car hurtling into the grandstand, injuring nearly 30 spectators and sending 14 to the hospital with serious injuries.
The damaged catch-fence was repaired during the overnight hours and was ready to go in time for the green flag on Sunday.
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