Daytona Beach – Jimmie Johnson staved off a group of determined chargers to win the 55th running of the Daytona 500. Taking command as the race wound down, the five-time NASCAR Sprint Cup title holder flashed his championship form to the delight of the large crowd that was standing and cheering in the closing laps.
For Johnson, he won the 500 for the second time, becoming the 10th driver to win multiple Daytona 500s. Also, he scored his 61st Sprint Cup triumph and he did it in his 400th start.
I had a lot of confidence in the final few laps...
Said the jubilant victor, “Plate racing is an awfully tough form of racing, and there’s lot of luck involved. 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 was so good. Chad Knaus and all of the Hendrick Motorsports team 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.
“We wanted to get this car to the 500. We knew it was the best car for us, and it certainly did its job. It is just awesome to win it. There’s no other way to describe it. To be the first to win in a Gen-6 car, and that car is a Chevy SS, just a very proud moment.”
Crew chief Chad Knaus was thrilled with the outcome. “As you know, I eat, sleep and breathe 48. Anytime I am taken away from that race car, I’m pretty sad,” he said. “A lot of effort went into this car, particularly with the G-6 construction. It was a great race, and a lot of fun. It feels great to win it.” He said that the team spent some 35 consecutive days building the car and he knew he spent one day of 38 hours on it.
There was rain in the forecast but it never materialized, although it was very overcast and much cooler than a day ago. As a result of the low cloud ceiling, the high-flying U. S. Air Force Thunderbirds were unable to perform their signature flyer.
Early on, two and sometimes three lanes were in use but once the race action settled down, single- file racing took over until the final 100 miles.
Running two lines, Johnson and reigning champion Brad Keselowski ran by side-by-side for several laps before the Lowe’s Chevrolet driver went inside to take the lead on the 185th lap. They continued to battle hard with Keselowski bouncing back, only to lose the lead spot with nine laps to go.
At the time, the two came together briefly just before a caution flag occurred. Thereafter, Keselowski fell back and couldn’t muster another shot for the lead. He ended up fourth.
Once Johnson grabbed the lead, everyone one got in line behind the leader, and the pack ran single file until the final stanza.
On the last lap, Mark Martin pushed Dale Earnhardt Jr. into second place, but neither had anything for Johnson as they sped toward the finish line.
Earnhardt desperately wanted the victory but seemed to accept the runner-up spot. He drove the National Guard Chevrolet, also fielded by Hendrick Motorsports.
“I couldn’t have done without Mark helping me at the end,” the popular driver said. “As I came out of turn two on the 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. Mark and I didn’t want to get hung up with those guys. Once we came off two, I mashed the gas, got a run on Danica (Patrick).
“I don’t know why those other guys didn’t pull down in front of me, but we had a pretty good run in three and four, but once we got there, we ran out of steam and didn’t have enough to get a run on Jimmie.”
Earnhardt went on to say he was pleased with the finish and for earning a first and second finish for the Hendrick team.
Third place went to Martin in the Aaron’s Dream Machine Toyota. In finishing well, he posted his 20th top-10 finish in 55 races at Daytona.
Said the veteran driver, “I had such a great car and my guys just keep digging. We wanted to be in the middle of it with two laps to go, and there we were. I was in a position where I needed to be to pass a bunch of car, so we did it. If things would have gotten crazy enough, maybe we could have got the big trophy. That’s how it went.
“There are a number of drivers that didn’t get to have a shot at the Daytona 500, and I was at least close enough to have an outside shot, so I feel extremely lucky for that opportunity.”
Keselowski took the Miller Lite Ford to fourth place and Ryan Newman bounced back from an early- race scrape to garner fifth.
Sixth through 10th were Greg Biffle, Regan Smith, Danica Patrick, McDowell and JJ Yeley.
For Smith, McDowell and Yeley, their showing was impressive, as they race for small teams.
Patrick’s eighth-place finish was not indicative of her race-long performance, as she ran in the top three and four cars for just about all but the closing laps. Starting on the pole, she did not lead the opening lap but did lead three times for five laps to become the first female to lead a lap in the Daytona 500.
She also became the first female to score a top-10 finish; previously, Janet Guthrie managed an 11th place run in 1980.
“It was a good solid and steady day,” she stated. “I wish I would have led at the very beginning, but it was nice to lead later on, just to lead laps. My race was steady and I spent most of the day half throttle running behind people. The outside line was the nice place to be, and I didn’t feel like it was wise to drop low and try to figure out how to pass.
One downside to running in that front group is that I never got to practice any passing. I never really tried anything. I would imagine that anyone would kick themselves and say what could I have or should have done to give myself that opportunity for a win. I was thinking in the car, ‘How am I going to do this?’ I didn’t know what to do exactly. I feel like maybe it’s just my inexperience.”
According to many drivers, Patrick drove a smooth race and they commended her on performance.
Six caution flags slowed the race for 24 laps. Two multi-car accidents derailed the chances for star drivers Tony Stewart, Kevin Harvick and Carl Edwards.
All three returned to action after lengthy stops for repairs, and they ended up 41st, 42nd and 33rd, respectively.
Engine woes befell Kyle Busch and teammate Matt Kenseth. Kenseth, the 2012 winner, looked to have one of the strongest cars as he led 86 laps before his day ended.