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Jimmie Johnson achieves yet another milestone

Eric Adelson
Yahoo Sports

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Only Jimmie Johnson can make a mess of metal look like a Fourth Of July parade.

The greatest driver of our era, a blur in white on Saturday night, led for 94 of 160 laps in the Coke Zero 400 and handled two late restarts like he was simply leaving his driveway to become the first driver in 31 years to sweep the season series at Daytona.

Only four others have ever gone unbeaten here in the same season, and three are in the Hall of Fame. The names include Cale Yarborough, Fireball Roberts, and the most recent to pull the double, Bobby Allison in 1982.

How long ago was that? Allison was driving a Buick Regal.

Johnson, who was six at that time, has won more than 15 percent of all the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races he's entered. Daytona hasn't always been kind to him, but a venue that has been a rare weak spot for him has suddenly become yet another place of domination.

"I don't know if I really made a bad move tonight," Johnson said in Victory Lane.

The funny thing is, he did make a bad move, or at least a questionable one. With only five laps left, and the rest of the field staring at his bumper, Johnson went up top and left a sliver of an opening for Marcos Ambrose. The faces in Johnson's pit turned quickly from calm to querulous as it looked for a moment that the typical Daytona mash-up in the last laps would turn a snoozer into a snafu for the 48. But a massive wreck quickly saved him and he got a chance to regroup under caution.

"I certainly had some concerns there," Johnson said, completely understating the borderline-catastrophe. "The thought of making the wrong move did go through my mind as I went up the front stretch."

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Denny Hamlin (11) hits the wall as he wrecks with A J Allmendinger, back, and Dave Blaney (7). (AP)

Then a second wreck caused a second restart with two laps left, and that forced Johnson to once again prove his mettle at a track where mettle doesn't always mean much. As the drivers got back up to speed, even the folks in Johnson's pit were flashing looks of concern, with one of his crew members screaming an expletive and a crew member's wife holding her hands to her face like she was in a Munch painting.

But hey, it's JJ. He burst from the field at just the right time and had the worriers fist-pumping and screaming for joy only seconds after he had them holding their breath. The last lap, usually a knee-knocker for everyone here, felt almost anti-climactic.

"He definitely was strong on restarts," said Tony Stewart, who finished second. "Being the leader helps on that. He wasn't doing anything fancy."

It just doesn't seem fancy. Winning at Daytona is a "crapshoot," in Stewart's words, but winning twice in one year is something other than luck. That's especially so when the second race includes leading more than half the laps.

And this is at Daytona, which is a track where Johnson has struggled (relatively). He had only won once here coming into this year.

Johnson winning twice at the Speedway in 2013 and finishing fifth at Talladega should give a chill to everyone else who drives for a living – and raise the possibility that, at 37 years old, the five-time champ still has untapped potential to fulfill. He called Saturday's win, his fourth victory of the season, "the most dominant performance we've had at a plate race." Johnson always looks comfortable, but being comfortable racing and being comfortable at Daytona are two different things. Now he's both.

And as for doing something that hasn't been done at this track in so long? Johnson didn't have a clue he was in Bobby Allison's company until well after the race was over.

"I had no idea," he said. "Some people remember where they were when Princess Diana passed away. I know where I was, where I was standing, where I was working – I was working at an engine shop in California – when I heard on the radio that Davey [Allison] crashed in a helicopter. I also know where I was when Bobby had his crash at Pocono."

He's in that elite class, not only in racing but here at NASCAR's most famous track.

"To do anything Bobby did is really, really special."

Someday, maybe 31 years from now, somebody will say that about Jimmie Johnson.

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