Jimmie Johnson found a way to thwart his issue with restarts — be the control car.
Johnson’s 94 laps in the lead at Daytona International Speedway on Saturday night allowed his No. 48 Chevy to avoid the madness behind him and regulate the late-race restarts to earn his 64th-career Cup win.
He became the first driver since Bobby Allison in 1982 to sweep both races in one season at Daytona — a feat accomplished by just four other drivers, including Fireball Roberts, LeeRoy Yarbrough and Cale Yarborough.
“That’s amazing,” Johnson said. “Growing up in Southern California and watching Bobby Allison, and I remember where I was the day Davey passed away. That’s how much the Allison family meant to me. I always thought it was so great to watch Bobby and Davey race, and to do anything Bobby has done is pretty special. Very happy tonight.”
But Johnson, who extended his points lead in the Sprint Cup standings to 49 over Clint Bowyer, was the only one.
Kevin Harvick, who finished third behind Johnson and Tony Stewart, was disgusted that his strategy didn’t play out.
“I really thought I was in the right spot,” Harvick said. “I thought if I could just hold Jimmie to Turn 1 that the pack would form behind us. Our line just never developed either time. On the restart, there with two different cars behind us.
“We didn’t win. That was our expectation coming here and that’s the expectation going to the superspeedway tracks.”
Clint Bowyer and Michael Waltrip rounded out the top five.
While Daytona International Speedway held the fireworks display until after the race, the competitors provided the warm-up act as the Coke Zero 400 was forced into overtime after Marcos Ambrose bounced off of Johnson and collected Kasey Kahne on the backstretch for the sixth — and final caution of the night.
But the collisions were far from over. On the white-flag lap, Carl Edwards was caught up in a multi-car melee in Turn 1, but the crashing continued with an eight-car pile-up coming to the start/finish line that included Danica Patrick, Brad Keselowski, Kyle Busch, Ryan Newman, Jeff Burton and Ricky Stenhouse, who had a front-row seat for the action, before finishing 11th.
“I had (Jamie McMurray) to the inside of me,” said Stenhouse. “I thought I was going to get shuffled back to about 15th there, and I saw (Dale Earnhardt Jr.) form a line up top in the mirror, and I saw the 10 (Patrick) was with him and had some good cars pushing him.
"So I thought all those guys, I thought they were all going to get by me. Then all of a sudden a few of them got turned down the racetrack, and I think the 10 got spun right in front of me, and then all of a sudden we ended up across the finish line and nobody was in front of us.
“It was a crazy finish, but I thought the racing was a lot better this go-around compared to the (Daytona) 500. Seemed like everybody was racing really hard, and a lot of side-by-side racing, which these fans deserve to see.”
For second-place finisher Tony Stewart, who abhors restrictor-plate racing, it was a relatively drama-free night. While much of the racing evolved into single-file competition, some racers feel that’s the safest route to finish.
“I’m glad I was behind all the chaos,” said Stewart, who was one of eight cars to cross the finish line unscathed.
“It worked out the way we planned. I wanted to go to Lap 110 and then try to start working our way forward, and the caution ended … set us up for that.
“This is a 195-mile-an-hour chess match, and the only lap that pays is 160. A lot is said about guys that lag back like that, but we’re in the most competitive series in the country, and when you’re running in the most competitive series in the country you have to do what you think is in the best interest of you, your car, your team and your situation to get to the end.
"Part of winning races is knowing where to be at what times.”
For Johnson, that was up front, where he could avoid the bedlam behind him. Although Daytona hasn’t always topped his list of favorite destinations, after winning both races this season in the Generation 6 car, Johnson’s opinion could be changing.
“It’s hard to say I hate plate racing right now with these wins,” Johnson said. “It’s just the Gen 5 car and the style of drafting that took place there, I just didn’t match up well with it, just didn’t do a good job.
“This car, this style of drafting fits well with me, and it’s made a huge difference.”
Clint Bowyer and Michael Waltrip were the only teammates to finish in the top five — and that’s a good thing for Bowyer, who needed a solid finish coming out of Daytona.
While Bowyer started third on Saturday night, he was shuffled back early in the race and exclaimed over the radio, “Get me out, get me out. This is not where I want to be.”
But like other drivers who rode around in the back of the pack to prepare for the end game, Bowyer stuck to his strategy to earn a fourth-place finish, and moved up to second in the point standings after Carl Edwards was collected in a last-lap crash.
"I made a rule with myself at these restrictor-plate tracks to be easy — you know, ride around,” Bowyer said. “It’s boring. You hate to do that for your sponsors — for your team. You want to be up there racing for every lap led. It’s just kind of been working for me.
“I’ll take a top-five in one of these things any day."
Bowyer posted his seventh top-five finish of the season and trails points leader Johnson by 49 points.
Although Bowyer experienced a few close calls along the way, he made a “deal” with himself to “take it easy” when competing at restrictor-plate tracks.
“If you get wiped out, it doesn’t matter who caused it or whose fault it was, if you get wiped out before halfway in one of these restrictor-plate races it’s your own fault,” Bowyer said. “You knew better than to put yourself in that situation. I just kind of made that a rule for me on these things and it’s been paying off.”
After scoring his seventh career top-five at Daytona, Michael Waltrip retweeted the sentiments of his crew chief Rodney Childers:
"That was great execution by everyone on the team after we got the nose tore up on pit road That was great teamwork"
3 — Accidents for Denny Hamlin in the last six races.
8 — Consecutive top-10 finishes by Kevin Harvick, including third on Saturday night.
4 — Wins for Jimmie Johnson, which ties him with Matt Kenseth for most victories this season.
When Tony Stewart was asked to describe to the fans what his experience was like behind the wheel on Saturday night, he replied, “Be glad you were sitting in the stands and not in the car.”