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Johnson reaffirms he's still Sprint Cup driver to beat

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Driver Jimmie Johnson celebrates after winning the Daytona 500 on Feb. 24, 2013. (Reuters)

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Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
 

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Jimmie Johnson said repeatedly he didn't feel as if had something to prove during this year's Daytona 500.

In reality, he had a great deal to prove to those who figured he had lost his touch. Or thought perhaps he had lost his competitive edge and the will to challenge the young, daring drivers who suddenly raced him without fear.

It's not as if Johnson had a bad 2012. But he surrendered part of his turf to usual contenders Tony Stewart, Matt Kenseth, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick and Greg Biffle.

Then, Clint Bowyer snuck in the side door to take away his runner-up position in the final Sprint Cup standings. And he failed to win his sixth Sprint Cup title, which was claimed by Brad Keselowski.

Johnson reaffirmed that he's still the man to beat as he outpointed a string of challengers over the final six laps to claim his second Daytona 500 win.

“I think what we have above everybody else is the desire to go out and win races,” said crew chief Chad Knaus, who missed Johnson's Victory Lane celebration in 2006 because of a suspension. “When they all want to go out and win races, you put guys like this behind the seat, you're going to see magic happen.”

When asked if self-doubt had crept in, Johnson smiled. When asked if he considered himself an underdog coming into the season opener, the 37-year-old Californian chuckled.

Actually, while some were afraid to bet against him, Johnson arrived quietly at the 2 12-mile tri-oval track with the spotlight clearly on Danica Patrick and the new Gen-6 car.

He was a footnote, but he was OK with it.

“In my mind, I didn't feel like I was under the radar,” said Johnson, who won for the 61st time in his 400th Cup start. “I felt like we were working hard to put the best product on the track.

“I had a good run in the Unlimited until we crashed. The duel, I thought we were very competitive there. It was a sign of things to come.”

The first sign was Johnson made it past the first lap a year after tearing up the No. 48 Chevrolet shortly after the parade lap. Then, he smartly negotiated his way through two messy wrecks without dulling the paint.

It was the Johnson of old.

He arguably was the best tactician, was lucky and good when it mattered, particularly on the final restart with the checkered flag within his grasp.

Afterward, he didn't gloat much. He even tipped his hat to his young nemesis, Keselowski.

“I guess I was quiet in the overall spectrum of things from the media side,” Johnson conceded. “I think people in the garage, people knew we were sitting on a lot of speed and had a very good racecar.”

Still, this Daytona 500 was a toss up. And when David Reutimann surged to the front along with Scott Speed, everyone had visions of a 100-1 long shot like Trevor Bayne in 2011 ripping the championship trophy out of Johnson's hand.

“It's like playing the lottery,” Johnson said half-jokingly. “Everybody's got a ticket. When the 83 (Reutimann) car is up there running fifth or sixth in the closing laps, it just shows you how equal the cars are and what the draft does.”

Johnson arguably didn't relinquish the title the past two years because he couldn't get it done on the track. Instead, his pit crew likely let him down more than he would like to admit.

Yet what probably separates Johnson from most other drivers is his ability to let go and move on. He didn't spend the offseason complaining about his misfortunes. He spent time in Concord, N.C., working out the pit-stop glitches that have haunted him since he won the last of his five Cup titles in 2010.

When he rolled up onto Victory Lane on Sunday, he immediately embraced his crew. Then, he showered them with platitudes of a job well done.

Ultimately, Johnson pushed the No. 48 across the finish line with a hungry teammate, Dale Earnhardt Jr., in hot pursuit.

“No one is going to ever count out ‘Five-Time' (Johnson),” three-time Daytona 500 champion Jeff Gordon said. “I expected him to win.”

Ralph N. Paulk is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at rpaulk@tribweb.com or Twitter @RalphPaulk_Trib.

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