Johnson wins 2nd Daytona 500; Patrick finishes 8th
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Finally, the wizard schooled the whiz kid.
Jimmie Johnson, who began the 55th Daytona 500 with an enormous chip on his shoulder after losing the 2012 Sprint Cup title to Brad Keselowski, gained a measure of redemption by winning the Great American Race at Daytona International Speedway on Sunday.
Johnson out-dueled his young rival on the final restart with six laps to go after a caution in Turn 2 on Lap 192 erased Keselowski's slim lead. Johnson, using the high line to generate speed, brushed back the challenge of Dale Earnhardt Jr. to win the season opener for the second time in what was his 400th career Cup start.
“The defining moment of the race was the caution,” said Johnson, who earned $1.5 million for the victory. “It gave me a chance to get ahead of the 2 (Keselowski).
“As far as racing with Brad out there, you really lose sight of who is in what car. It's just somebody between you and the trophy. It could have been any car, but I knew the 2 had some damage and wasn't really fast. That's the only thing I thought about.”
Johnson didn't take the bait on whether he and Keselowski are engaged in a serious rivalry. He added, however, that this ranks as one of the sweetest of his 61 career victories.
“I had a fast car, and I could stay up front all day long,” said Johnson, who delivered owner Rick Hendrick his seventh Daytona 500 victory. “I had a lot of confidence at the end of the race leading the train. I knew just how fast this car was.
“Plate racing is an awfully tough form of racing, and there's a lot of luck involved. Pack racing is a little different. You can't ride and wait for things to happen.”
While the new Gen-6 car proved hard to pass at times and somewhat aerodynamically challenged, Johnson steered it effortlessly over the last six laps. He took the checkered flag ahead of Earnhardt, 54-year-old Mark Martin, Keselowski, Ryan Newman, Greg Biffle and Regan Smith, who triggered the 12-car crash on the final lap of Saturday's Nationwide Series race.
Danica Patrick, the first woman to win a NASCAR pole, led twice for five laps in becoming the first woman to lead the Daytona 500. She was running third on the last lap before finishing eighth.
“I felt really calm leading the field to the green,” said Patrick, who led for the first time on Lap 90. “I was disappointed I didn't (lead) off the bat like I thought I should have.”
Johnson's nearest pursuers were forced to be patient, especially because the tandem racing that dominated the past two 500s never materialized. An anxious Keselowski got out of line and was reeled back toward a charging pack to lose contact with Johnson with four laps remaining.
“The high line was so much faster than the lower lanes that the guy that had the high line was in charge,” Keselowski said. “We wrecked out three times and still had a shot at the win.”
Earnhardt maneuvered around Biffle and Patrick on the final lap. He pulled within a door-length of Johnson's bumper in the tri-oval but couldn't find enough speed at the bottom of the racetrack to mount a challenge down the front stretch.
“I couldn't do much without Mark (Martin) helping me,” said Earnhardt, who finished second at Daytona for the third time in four years. “Once we came out of Turn 3, I couldn't get a run at Jimmie.”
The 200-lap race was altered significantly when the first Big One took out several big-name drivers, including Kevin Harvick, Kasey Kahne and Tony Stewart.
“We were just running the line. The front three cars, for whatever reason, slowed down pretty quickly,” Kahne said. “So I was just on the brakes and trying not to hit Jeff (Gordon). The other cars behind me didn't slow down in time.”
The two drivers piloting Chevrolets for Fox Chapel native Chip Ganassi were taken out in the 9-car crash on Lap 33. Jamie McMurray, the 2010 winner, and Juan Pablo Montoya later returned after their cars were repaired but were simply turning laps in preparation for next week's race in Phoenix.
“Somebody backed-up to my grill. It was just a little touch,” Montoya said. “I saw them when they were all getting together, and I said ‘Oh, they are wrecking.'
“You could see it coming. They were all checking up. I thought, ‘Somebody isn't going to check-up and screw-up,' and then they did.”