The list of drivers who’ve won in their 400th career start, including Sunday reads like a Who’s Who of Who’s Mattered within this sport. Four of them are Hall of Famers: Richard Petty, Lee Petty, David Pearson, and Dale Earnhardt, Sr. paired with the sport’s most successful independent, Dave Marcis. It’s a number that, however random has been connected to the very best.
No wonder why it seemed only natural the sport’s five-time champion, Jimmie Johnson, would get added next, using the sport’s Super Bowl to do it.
That was far from a sure thing for most of the 55th annual Great American Race, where Johnson was invisible for the first 400 miles. But in the last ten laps, he surged to the front, flying past Brad Keselowski and winning fairly comfortably, in restrictor plate terms to take his second Harley J. Earl trophy. While Dale Earnhardt, Jr. made a charge on the backstretch, pushing valiantly into second into Turn 3 he would come up short as Johnson came to the line about 0.129 seconds ahead – a little more than a car length out front.
That meant a 1-2 finish for Hendrick Motorsports, the third time in Daytona history that’s happened since 1989. But it was done in the most unconventional of ways, with Earnhardt never getting out front and Johnson pacing the field consistently until Lap 186.
“I felt like I was sitting on something all day,” he said afterwards, smiling. “And was just ready to have some fun when it counted.”
It also caught the rest of the field off guard. The turning point for Johnson came on Lap 178, after a caution for Jeff Burton’s one-car incident bunched up the field. That handed the lead to an unlikely source, a wounded Brad Keselowski, who took the caution at the start/finish line in front despite still coming up to speed on pit road after jumping off-sequence during green-flag stops. The ensuing restart led to the best racing of the day, the No. 2 car trying to hold the outside while Johnson darted to the inside and led a spirited challenge. All race, up to that point the lower groove had fallen short, making the race a battle of track position but Keselowski’s aero woes, after being involved in two wrecks let the No. 48 edge in front as the race’s sixth and final caution came out for debris.
“That gave him the high line on the restart,” said Keselowski, who still held on to fourth. “And there was nothing we could do. We weren’t strong enough to hold our own there.”
Without his former title rival to contend with, Johnson was on cruise control, reversing a recent trend of superspeedway disasters that connected all the way back to his initial 500 win in 2006. Last season, he wrecked or blew a motor at every plate race, producing just one top-5 finish in his last 13 Daytona starts before Sunday.
“It’s like playing the lottery,” he said about this style of racing. “Everybody’s got a ticket. I’ve struck out a lot at these tracks, left with torn-up race cars. Today we had a clean day.”
Earnhardt, whose last-lap charge fell short, now has his third runner-up finish in the last four years at Daytona. He, along with third-place Mark Martin put together a perfect run on the inside line but, as would be the theme of too much of this 500 they stalled out before getting up to the leader’s rear bumper on the inside.
“We kind of run out of steam,” Earnhardt said. “Once we come to turn four… but real happy with the way the car run all day. You couldn’t pass.”
Neither could anybody else. Single-file racing, indeed was the name of the game as just 19 lead changes, mostly during green-flag stops occurred during the race’s first 172 laps. A long, snarling parade of cars was derived from a combination of factors, from drivers unwilling to get aggressive, fearing another wreck after Saturday’s Nationwide tragedy to a simple drafting disaster with NASCAR’s new Gen-6.
“I didn’t want to run single file,” Keselowski said, “But when you try to make a move and go to the bottom, you just go backwards. The only thing worse than running single file is running single file in the back of the pack.”
“When we’re running single file, we’re just trying to get to the finish,” added Johnson. “We’ve all crashed so many times and have torn up so much stuff that a lot of that falls on the driver’s shoulders.”
The result was a fairly conservative 500, marred by just two multi-car incidents along with one on the final lap, involving Travis Kvapil, Marcos Ambrose and several others. Unfortunately, the two crashes that did occur involved several favorites, eliminating Kevin Harvick, Tony Stewart, and Kasey Kahne before the 100-mile mark. Others, like Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth had motors go south, opening the door for Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus for their offseason effort to pay off.
“I’m telling you, I know we worked at least 35 days straight on the car that we raced in the Daytona 500,” said the crew chief, who was suspended for Johnson’s other win in this race, in 2006. “I know I put in personally one day of 38 hours straight. I actually sent Jimmie a text, saying I’ve seen 6:48 three times today and haven’t been to bed yet.”
“We’ve got 500-plus employees at Hendrick Motorsports. When they all want to go out and win races, you put guys like [Johnson] behind the seat, you’re going to see magic happen.”
Stewart-Haas Racing’s Ryan Newman wound up fifth in the race, followed by Greg Biffle. Regan Smith, Danica Patrick, Michael McDowell and J. J. Yeley rounded out the top-10 finishers. There were a total of 28 lead changes among 14 drivers, with 24 cars ending the race on the lead lap.
For Patrick, it was a record-setting day, starting from the pole as she became the first woman to lead the Daytona 500. Her end result was also the best for her gender in the Great American Race, the capper to a steady day in which she never strayed that far from the front.
“She’s going to make a lot of history all year long,” exalted Earnhardt in his presser. “It’s going to be a lot of fun to watch her progress. I think she’s done her best work in the Cup car myself. I think, for whatever reason, she seems to get a lot more out of that car.”
While starting from the pole, Patrick was not able to lead until midway through the race. As the laps wound down, she ran as high as third in the closing stretch and made a nice recovery from adversity, having to charge through the pack after struggling to get off pit road, losing two to three spots, at least on virtually every stop during the 500.
“Today,” Patrick added. “Being able to stay up front, get to the lead at one point, just run up in the top 10, for me that was more of an accomplishment.”
The race ran with six caution flags, for 24 laps and posted an average speed of 159.250 miles an hour. The series now moves to Phoenix, next Sunday for the second race of the season.
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