DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Jimmie Johnson hasn't won a championship in two years. But on Sunday, he proved he's got plenty of fire left for a run at NASCAR's most fabled record: seven championships.
Last year, the five-time champ wrecked on Lap 2 of the Daytona 500. This year, making his 400th career start, Johnson outpaced the entire field and won convincingly, holding off challenges from Brad Keselowski and Greg Biffle.
Jimmie Johnson celebrates with his daughter Evie after winning the Daytona 500. (AP)As the leaders raced for the checkered flag, a wreck broke out behind them. NASCAR did not bring out the yellow flag, allowing the drivers to race to the finish line. Johnson won that battle, followed by Dale Earnhardt Jr. in second. Mark Martin came home third.
"I had a lot of confidence in the final few laps leading the train, so I knew just how fast the car was," said Johnson, who collected his second Daytona 500 victory. "So big credit to everybody at Hendrick Motorsports."
The 55th Daytona 500 made history days before the green flag flew. Danica Patrick delivered on a measure of the hype surrounding her by becoming the first woman to ever qualify for the pole in a Sprint Cup race. While she couldn't initially capitalize on her leading position — Jeff Gordon passed her almost immediately — Patrick remained close to the front for most of the day. When she took the lead on Lap 90, she became the first woman ever to lead a lap under green at the Daytona 500. She entered the final lap in third place, and would go on to finish eighth.
"Ran up front all day long, led a little, stayed in the top 10 pretty much," Patrick said after getting out of her car. "It's always a little frustrating when you come through and You're in the top three in the last lap, but I'll learn more for the next time."
For much of the afternoon, drivers ran in single-file lines because of the lack of grip on the lower line. It was different, at least, than the tandem and pack racing that fans had seen over the last few years. But the differing effects of the draft on the new Gen 6 cars made predicting the best spots on the track a tricky and dicey business, as several big names learned when their days ended early.
The race ran largely caution-free, though a wreck on Lap 33 changed the complexion of the leaderboard. Kyle Busch ran into the back of Kasey Kahne, who had checked up because of slower cars in front of him. The ensuing wreck took out other big names such as Tony Stewart and Kevin Harvick. While all were able to return to the track, they were dozens of laps down and thus begin the season on a down note.
A later wreck knocked out Carl Edwards, who will be more than happy to put Daytona in his rear-view mirror. He wadded up five cars over the course of Speedweeks, and once again will be playing from behind.
Of major concern for many teams: Toyotas had significant engine problems toward the end of the race. Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. all had late-race engine problems that sidelined their cars and submarined their chances.
The best racing of the day came with less than 15 laps to go, when last year's championship duelists staged a multi-lap head-to-head battle. Brad Keselowski and Jimmie Johnson ran side by side, each looking for any advantage. When a caution flew with nine laps remaining, Johnson took the outside line. From there, it was simply a matter of clicking off laps for Johnson.
The Sprint Cup series now heads to Phoenix.
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