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WWD: Daytona 500

Jonathan Baum
Yahoo Sports

How the race was won

Johnson
Johnson Johnson stayed near the front all day and eventually took the lead with some help from – and eventually at the expense of – his teammates. With assistance from Casey Mears, Johnson was able to hold off Ryan Newman after a green-white-checkers restart to win the race.

Story of the race

It starts with Johnson and his No. 48 team. They cheated and crew chief Chad Knaus was booted from Daytona, but they won the race anyway. Johnson winning isn't always popular with fans; the cheating incident makes this win, fairly or not, even less popular.

Also, Tony Stewart and the rough driving seen during the race. More on that later.

Finally, the lack of the Big One. Sure, there were multi-car wrecks, but several potentially big crashes were averted by nifty saves and heads-up driving.

Give 'em credit

Johnson and the No. 48 team members not named Knaus – especially fill-in crew chief Darian Grubb. Nice win.

Casey Mears. Hopes are high this season now that he's in the No. 42 car, but so are expectations. A runner-up finish in the 500 is a spectacular start.

The Penske boys. Ryan Newman and Kurt Busch were terrific all day until Busch was wrecked late in the race. Not sure what is more strange: Busch driving the blue No. 2, or seeing the Nos. 2 and 12 work together so much.

The rest of the top 10 – especially Ken Schrader (he could have a pretty decent season), Clint Bowyer (who would have thought he'd lead the Childress charge on Sunday), Brian Vickers (sure, it's not a win, but a huge performance nonetheless) and Elliott Sadler (start to finish, what a solid week).

Tony Stewart. He does deserve a nod for making his way back to the front on several different occasions to finish fifth (and for winning the Busch race). Still, even more to come on the Rushville Rascal.

Matt Kenseth (IROC win), Mark Martin (Craftsman Truck win), Denny Hamlin (Bud Shootout win) and Burney Lamar (Busch race runner-up) also made noise.

And finally Kirk Shelmerdine. Not only did he manage to qualify for the 500, but he also scraped together money for tires and worked out a 20th-place finish – and took home more than $270,000 for his efforts. What a tremendous story.

What were they thinking?

Tony Stewart. He complains about rough driving, forcing NASCAR to act. Then he is guilty on more than one occasion of rough driving. The Kenseth incident was ridiculous (as were Stewart's postrace comments), and Stewart easily could have been the cause of a huge wreck had Kenseth's car not miraculously made its way back across the track without being slammed into. Stewart also got into it with Johnson and Kyle Busch (who perhaps needs to be knocked around a little). Then there was the Jeff Gordon incident, which wasn't really Stewart's fault, but he could have helped to prevent that wreck. He didn't. Despite his spirited comebacks, it's possible there never has been a driver less deserving of a top-five finish at such an important race. Cranky Tony might not be back, but this certainly wasn't the "new and improved" Stewart we all heard so much about last year, either. Aside from the crafty driving, another reason there was no Big One was that most of the field, for the most part, was courteous when possible. Stewart was not.

Look, Stewart is one of the best (if not the best) drivers in the sport, and he obviously cares about NASCAR's future. He's also often a pretty entertaining interview. But at the Daytona 500, he simply was out of control.

NASCAR, meanwhile, probably was too hard on Kenseth. The guy had a great car before Stewart took him out. Yes, Kenseth retaliated, and yes, he should have been punished. But being sent to the end of the line would have been fair, especially since that's the penalty Stewart was stuck with. Instead, NASCAR not only made Kenseth serve a drive-through under green, it also essentially docked him a lap for failing to immediately serve the penalty because he simply wanted a better explanation as to why he was being punished. Kenseth eventually got back on the lead lap and finished 15th. Imagine what he could have done if not for the penalty. NASCAR did a lot of things right last week, including booting Knaus and stepping in on the bump draft/rough driving issue. The way they handled Kenseth, however, was not one of them.

Then there's Newman. He's here not for the topic of his postrace comments, but for the extent to which he pressed the cheating issue and then criticized Johnson's driving. He also had some thoughts on Mears not following him late when he tried to take the lead even though staying low made the most sense for Mears. Maybe Johnson is right and Newman is just a sore loser.

And, of course, Knaus. Actually, it's not difficult to imagine exactly what he was thinking.

Better luck next time

Busch
Busch

Busch. After such a tremendous first showing with Penske (and first points race since the incident at Phoenix), he deserved better.

Gordon. He did a nice job of hanging in and eventually competing for a top 10 before essentially being taken out late. He rightly accepted some responsibility for the earlier Stewart banging, too.

The Petty cars. A feel-good story that didn't quite materialize, at least not on Sunday. There's still time.

By the way ...

How cool was it to see the pack three-wide with Stewart, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Michael Waltrip leading the way late in Saturday's Busch race? Great stuff. Also, did anyone catch what night NBC is moving "Las Vegas" to? The network really should let fans know.

It also was a kick to watch Johnson's reactions to seeing some of the race's big wrecks for the first time while being interviewed on ESPN. Just shows how focused these guys are during the race.

Grading the race

It was a strange race. The record lead changes speaks to decent action at the front, though the need for drivers to (usually) have help in order to take the lead left a little to be desired (in years past, one car going with Earnhardt Jr. to the outside might have been enough). But collectively, the Speedweek's events – the Shootout, the Duels, IROC, the Craftsman Trucks, the Busch race and then the 500 – were solid and exciting. But the aero packages at the superspeedways need to be looked at. Pack racing seemingly always will be a part of it, but the slingshoting and pushing/pulling of the past was more fun than the current bumping and banging, and hugging of the yellow line. Grade: B+

From the source

Jimmie Johnson: "I dedicate this to all the haters of the 48 team."

Ryan Newman (before Johnson's postrace inspection): "His car still may be illegal."

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