NASCAR Sprint Cup star and five-time points champion Jimmie Johnson hoists his second career Daytona 500 trophy high above his head in celebration after winning auto racing’s Super Bowl on Sunday at Daytona International Speedway. Johnson grabbed the lead late and held on, beating out teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr., who finished second again.
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Jimmie Johnson had no problem admitting it.
“Daytona has not been too kind to the 48 bunch recently,” he said.
But no more.
Johnson posted his best finish in the past six races at Daytona International Speedway on Sunday when he joined the multi-winners club by claiming NASCAR’s Super Bowl.
Johnson said he knew he was “sitting on something all day (Sunday), and when it was time to go, we had the car to do it.”
And that is exactly what he did as the win also came in his 400th career race.
The five-time champion became the 10th driver to win multiple Daytona 500s and the sixth driver to win his 400th start. The others are Hall of Famers Lee Petty, Richard Petty, David Pearson and Dale Earnhardt as well as Dave Marcis. The win was also the 61st of Johnson’s career.
Johnson showed just how strong he was by being the first driver to pull the inside line fast enough to stay with the outside lane. For most of the race, the outside line was far superior.
Seven laps after most of the leaders had made their final pit stop, the caution came out when Jeff Burton blew an engine and hit the wall.
Defending Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski was the leader with Johnson running second. When the green flag came out with 19 laps to go, the outside line headed by Keselowski, Greg Biffle, pole-sitter Danica Patrick, Jeff Gordon, Mark Martin and Dale Earnhardt Jr. edged ahead of the inside line headed by Johnson, Denny Hamlin, Clint Bowyer, Aric Almirola and Joey Logano.
But Johnson refused to concede the lead as he battled back to swap the lead five times with Keselowski before another caution flag was waved for debris in the second turn. The piece of metal actually bounced off of Keselowski’s front bumper.
“I was doing everything I could to clear him,” Johnson said. “But I just couldn’t do it. I was afraid it was going to stay that way (side-by-side) the rest of the way. The caution certainly fell at a good time for us.”
By being the leader, Johnson could decide which line to start in and he elected the outside line. It quickly became evident that with Johnson out front, it was the superior line for the final six-lap shootout.
As the field got the white flag, Johnson was the leader followed by Biffle, Patrick, Earnhardt and Martin.
The crowd of 100,000-plus waited for a last-lap move by Biffle or Patrick, but it was Earnhardt and Martin who hooked up. Johnson, however, was able to hold off the charge to win the first race for the new Generation-Six car.
“This is just awesome,” Johnson said. “This is a very, very proud moment to win the first race for the Gen-Six car. To win a second Daytona 500, just an awesome day.”
“I was waiting for Biffle to make a move, but my spotter said Junior had a run,” Johnson added. “But I didn’t think he had enough of a run to get beside me. Man, this car was strong (Sunday).”
Martin finished third followed by Keselowski, Ryan Newman, Biffle, Regan Smith, Patrick, Michael McDowell and J.J. Yeley.
“I couldn’t have done much without Mark helping me at the end,” Earnhardt said. “Once we came off of (turn) two, I mashed the gas, got a run on Danica, side-drafted her a little bit. Once we got to four, we kind of ran out of steam, didn’t have enough to get by Jimmie.
“But I am real happy with the way my car ran all day. It was plenty capable of winning the race.”
While Patrick was disappointed with the final outcome and her eighth-place finish, she still called the day a “solid one. I was half-throttle most of the day — just staying in line. I just needed people to help me out (at the end). I was afraid to go low (before the last lap). I figured if I go low, I would get freight-trained.”
Patrick said she was glad to be in the mix at the end and would take plenty away from the experience.
“It was nice to lead three laps,” added Patrick, who became the first woman to win the 500 pole, lead the Daytona 500 and lead a Cup race under the green flag. “I suppose the only downside to running in that front group all day is that I never got any practice passing. I never really tried anything. But all in all, it was a nice day, but nothing really super-duper.”
Earnhardt, for one, was impressed by the Sprint Cup rookie.
“She’s going to make a lot of history all year long,” he said. “It’s going to be a lot of fun to watch her progress. Every time I’ve seen her in a pretty hectic situation, she always really remained calm.”
Biffle said he had planned to make “my move in the middle of (turns) three and four. That’s what I was thinking. That was my plan. I had it figured out, but my plan didn’t quite come together. Junior had too much momentum. I would have never thought anyone on the bottom lane would have gotten a run like that at the end.”
Keselowski rallied to challenge for the win after being involved in the two multi-car accidents.
“We were real fortunate because we caught a big break when the yellow came out and we had just pitted,” Keselowski said. “That got us to the lead and then we caught a bad break when the yellow came out as we were battling with Jimmie. He was an inch in front of me when the yellow came out and that gave him the high line on the restart and there was nothing we could do.
“We weren’t strong enough to hold our own down there on the bottom. I think you saw all day that the high line was so much faster than the lower lane that the guy that had the high lane was in charge.”
Matt Kenseth dominated the first two-thirds of the race as he led four times for a race-high 86 laps and was the leader when he suddenly slowed on lap 149 and pulled into the pits with a broken transmission.
“Disappointing end to a great day,” said Kenseth, making his first start for Joe Gibbs Racing. “We were obviously one of the cars to beat, and I think we’re going to be a force all year. We have a lot to look forward to.”
Just moments before Kenseth’s day ended in 37th place, the Gibbs cars were running 1-2-3. But three laps after Kenseth’s problems, teammate Kyle Busch suffered a blown engine.
“Just unfortunate that this whole team has got to go through this stuff,” Busch said. “Something broke inside the motor that wasn’t supposed to break. These guys (on his team and at Joe Gibbs Racing) work too hard and it sounds a lot like 2012 already (when we suffered a number of mechanical problems headed by repeated engine failures).”
Early in the race, Busch was in the middle of a multi-car accident that took out prerace favorites Kevin Harvick and Tony Stewart, as well as Kasey Kahne, Juan Pablo Montoya and Jamie McMurray.
On Lap 33 of the 200-lap event, Kahne slowed and was clipped by Busch, sending Kahne sideways. As Kahne shot down the track, he clipped the front end of Montoya’s Chevrolet. Harvick, who had won the Sprint Unlimited and the first of the Budweiser Duels on Thursday, slowed to miss the wreck but was hit by Martin. In all, nine cars were involved.
“I saw the 5 (Kahne) get sideways and I got out of it (the gas),” Harvick said. “The 55 (Martin) got me a touch, but that is all it takes. We had a great week. We’ll rebound in Phoenix.”
Harvick finished 42nd in the 43-car field, while Stewart ended up 41st to put both of them well behind in their quest to make the Championship Chase in 2013.