Danica Patrick led laps, two favorites crashed early and another crash marred the final lap. Yep, that’s Daytona.
Jimmie Johnson emerged from it all as the winner Sunday in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Daytona 500, a year after completing just one lap. Dale Earnhardt Jr., Mark Martin, Brad Keselowski and Ryan Newman rounded out top five at Daytona International Speedway.
“Plate racing has been tough on the 48 (team), as we all know for the last few years,” Johnson said, referencing his drought of top finishes since he won his first Daytona 500 in 2006. “. . . I felt like I was sitting on something all day and was just ready to have some fun when it counted, and it did.”
In the debut of the Gen-6 car, and in his 400th start, Johnson waited until late to mount his real challenge and earn his second win in the premier race. He’d won his first in 2006 without crew chief Chad Knaus on hand as he was sidelined serving a NASCAR penalty.
Two major crashes slowed the action in the race, while Patrick set yet another record in the sport — and once more the race featured a mad rush to the finish as drivers picked up the pace in the closing laps.
At Daytona, the battle for positions always ramps up as the race nears its end. After racing single file for a large segment of the 500, the drivers formed a second line and raced side by side in the pack.
Defending series champion Keselowski led the group on the outside, with Johnson bringing a group alongside on the inside. They traded the lead — and then suddenly Earnhardt Jr. was coming to the front.
With 10 to go, Keselowski held the edge. He shifted to the inside line. He moved back to the outside. As everyone was racing hard, a caution came out for debris on the track on Lap 191 — shuffling the racing lines for the restart.
Johnson took the lead on the restart, leading Biffle, Patrick and Earnhardt in the outside lane. Johnson took the white flag with the field single file, but then the real battle for position began as a crash erupted on the track. The caution flag did not come out for the leaders as Patrick began to fall back and Earnhardt stormed toward his teammate.
“I couldn’t have done much without Mark helping me here at the end,” Earnhardt said. “I was hoping he was thinking what I was thinking as we come off of (Turn) 2 on that last lap. I felt like we needed to make the move a little earlier than off of (Turn) 4.
“I kept backing up, backing up, trying not to let guys get racing behind us too much. If somebody ducked out of line a couple rows behind Mark, I was going to have a gap, me and Mark could take off, not get hung up with those guys. Once we come off of 2, mashed the gas, got a run on Danica, side-drafted her a little bit. I don’t know why them guys didn’t pull down in front of me beside Jimmie, but we got through 3 and 4 with a pretty good run. Once we come to Turn 4, we kind of run out of steam, didn’t have enough to get a run on Jimmie.”
In the end, though, Earnhardt knew it would be quite a task to catch him.
“I got the same equipment Jimmie does, so we were up against a pretty steep climb trying to get by him, getting a run on him,” he said.
He managed to avoid the crashes that took out so many contenders earlier in the race.
On Lap 33 of the 200, Kyle Busch appeared to tag the left rear quarter-panel of Kasey Kahne’s car in the drafting pack, causing Kahne to spin.
“The guys in front of me were all checking up,” Kahne said. “I was trying not to run over Jeff (Gordon) and I could feel a lot of momentum right there, so I was trying hard not to run over Jeff. Kyle was probably feeling the same momentum from behind and hit me, which shot me to the infield. There were a lot of cars close together.”
Kahne went sideways and cars piled into the nine-car accident. Keselowski sustained significant damage in the crash, as did Tony Stewart, Kahne, Juan Pablo Montoya, Kevin Harvick — who was trying to become the first driver to sweep the Speedweeks events after winning the Budweiser Duel and Sprint Unlimited — and Jamie McMurray. Casey Mears and Kurt Busch also were involved in the accident.
Meanwhile, polesitter Patrick took the lead on Lap 90, becoming the first woman to lead the Daytona 500 under green-flag conditions. After giving up the lead to pit, she regained it on Lap 127. She led five laps in the first three-quarters of the race and ran in the top 10 for much of it.
“She did an incredible job today, as well as an incredible job a number of times last year,” Martin said. “There will be more of that to come. And it will be good for the sport.”
Patrick pointed out the she still wants more, though.
“I’m honored,” she said. “But, again, these are things that just happen along the way. I’m on the quest to be the best driver, run up front, get to Victory Lane. These things happen and I’m proud, but they’re not the ultimate goal."
Carl Edwards’ rough Daytona run continued — he crashed in testing, in practice for the Sprint Unlimited, in Daytona 500 practice and in the Budweiser Duel — as he got caught up in the second major crash of the afternoon. Keselowski and Trevor Bayne made contact and Bayne spun, getting hit by Edwards — who wrecked his fifth car of Speedweeks. Josh Wise, Austin Dillon, David Gilliland, David Ragan, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Terry Labonte also were involved.
Kenseth led 86 laps before his car started smoking and he was forced to pit road. Moments later, on Lap 152, Kyle Busch headed to pit road with smoke pouring out of the rear of his car. The engines in each of the Toyotas failed.
As for Johnson, as he looked back over the race and his recent history here, he found he could ride this win for months.
“Man, it’s like playing the lottery,” he said. “Everybody’s got a ticket. When the 83 car (of David Reutimann) 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. I’ve struck out a lot at these tracks, left with torn-up race cars. Today we had a clean day.
“I didn’t doubt our ability to win, I was just frustrated with circumstances and plate racing. This will buy me a smile for I’m sure the rest of the year on the plate tracks.”
It comes a year after Johnson completed only one lap in the race because of a wreck that also collected Patrick, and just three months after Johnson lost his bid for a sixth Sprint Cup title to go two years without a championship after winning five straight.
Although he didn’t think he needed to send a message to his competitors — ”I don’t think we went anywhere; anybody in the garage area, they’re wise to all that,” Johnson said — the win showed the No. 48 team is tired of coming up short after all those years of dominance.
”Definitely a great start for the team. When we were sitting discussing things before the season started, we felt good about the 500,” Johnson said, ”but we’re really excited for everything after the 500. I think it’s going to be a very strong year for us.”
Patrick is hoping for her own success after a history-making race.
The first woman to win the pole, Patrick also became the first woman to lead the race. She ran inside the top 10 almost the entire race, kept pace with the field and never panicked on the track.
Her only mistakes were on pit road, where she got beat on the race back to the track, and on the final lap, when she was running third but got snookered by the veterans and faded to eighth. That’s going to stick with Patrick for some time.
”I would imagine pretty much anyone would be kicking themselves about what they coulda, shoulda have done to give themselves an opportunity to win,” she said. ”I think that’s what I was feeling today, was uncertainty as to how I was going to accomplish that.”
There were several multicar crashes, but no one was hurt and none of them approached the magnitude of the wreck that injured more than two dozen fans in the grandstand at the end of the second-tier Nationwide Series race on the same track a day earlier. Daytona International Speedway workers were up until 2 a.m repairing the fence that was damaged in the accident, and track officials offered Sunday morning to move any fans who felt uneasy sitting too close to the track.
Several drivers said the accident and concern for the fans stuck with them overnight and into Sunday morning, and Johnson was quick to send his thoughts from Victory Lane.
”I just want to give a big shout-out to all the fans, and I also want to send my thoughts and prayers out to everybody that was injured in the grandstands,” Johnson said.
Earnhardt, whose father was killed in this race 12 years ago, was involved in Saturday’s accident but refocused and finished second to Johnson, his Hendrick Motorsports teammate.
”Me personally, I was just really waiting to get the news on how everybody was, how all the fans were overnight, just hoping that things were going to improve,” Earnhardt said, adding that he ”wasn’t really ready to proceed until you had some confirmation that things were looking more positive.”
The race itself, the debut for NASCAR’s new Gen-6 car, was quite similar to all the other Cup races during Speedweeks in that the cars seemed to line up in a single-file parade along the top groove of the track. It made the 55th running of the Daytona 500 relatively uneventful.
When the race was on the line, Johnson took off.
The driver known as ”Five-Time” raced past defending NASCAR champion Brad Keselowski on the final restart and pulled out to a sizable lead that nobody challenged over the final six laps.
Johnson and Keselowski went down to the wire last season in their race for the Sprint Cup title, with Johnson faltering in the final two races as Keselowski won his first Cup championship.
Although it was a bit of an upset that stuck with Johnson into the offseason, it gave him no extra motivation when he found himself racing with Keselowski late Sunday for the Daytona 500.
”As far as racing with Brad out there, you really lose sight of who is in what car,” Johnson said. ”It’s just somebody between you and the trophy. It could have been anybody.”
Once Johnson cleared Keselowski on the last restart he had a breakaway lead with Greg Biffle and Patrick behind him. But as the field closed in on the checkered flag, Earnhardt finally made his move, just too late and too far behind to get close enough to the lead.
Earnhardt wound up second for the third time in the last four years. But with all the crashes the Hendrick cars have endured in restrictor-plate races — teammate Kahne was in the first accident Sunday — team owner Rick Hendrick was just fine with the finish.
”We have a hard time finishing these races. Boy, to run 1-2, man, what a day,” Hendrick said. Jeff Gordon, who was a contender early, faded late to 20th.
Patrick was clearly disappointed with her finish. When the race was on the line, she was schooled by Earnhardt, who made his last move and blocked any chance she had.
Still, Patrick became the first woman in history to lead laps in the 500 when she passed Michael Waltrip on a restart on Lap 90. She stayed on the point for two laps, then was shuffled back to third. She ended up leading five laps, another groundbreaking moment for Patrick, who as a rookie in 2005 became the first woman to lead the Indianapolis 500 and now is the 13th driver to lead laps in both the Daytona 500 and the Indy 500.
”Dale did a nice job and showed what happens when you plan it out, you drop back and get that momentum. You are able to go to the front,” Patrick said. ”I think he taught me something. I’m sure I’ll watch the race and there will be other scenarios I see that can teach me, too.”
Earnhardt was impressed, nonetheless.
”She’s going to make a lot of history all year long. It’s going to be a lot of fun to watch her progress,” said Earnhardt Jr. ”Every time I’ve seen her in a pretty hectic situation, she always really remained calm. She’s got a great level head. She’s a racer. She knows what’s coming. She’s smart about her decisions. She knew what to do today as far as track position and not taking risks. I enjoy racing with her.”
Johnson, one of three heavyweight drivers who took their young daughters to meet Patrick — ”the girl in the bright green car” — after she won the pole in qualifications, tipped his cap, too.
”I didn’t think about it being Danica in the car,” Johnson said. ”It was just another car on the track that was fast. That’s a credit to her and the job she’s doing.”
The field was weakened by an early nine-car accident that knocked out race favorite Kevin Harvick and sentimental favorite Tony Stewart.
Harvick had won two support races coming into the 500 to cement himself as the driver to beat, but the accident sent him home with a 42nd place finish.
Stewart, meanwhile, dropped to 0-for-15 in one of the few races the three-time NASCAR champion has never won.
”If I didn’t tell you I was heartbroken and disappointed, I’d be lying to you,” Stewart said.
That accident also took former winner McMurray, his Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Montoya, and Kahne out of contention.
The next accident, involving nine cars, came 105 laps later and brought a thankful end to Speedweeks for Edwards. He was caught in his fifth accident since testing last month, and this wreck collected six other Ford drivers.
The field suddenly had six Toyota drivers at the front as Joe Gibbs Racing and Michael Waltrip Racing drivers took control of the race. But JGR’s day blew up, literally, when the team was running 1-2-3 with Matt Kenseth, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch setting the pace.
Kenseth, who led a race-high 86 laps, went to pit road first with an engine problem, and Busch was right behind him with a blown engine. Busch was already in street clothes watching as Hamlin led the field.
”It’s a little devastating when you are running 1-2-3 like that,” Busch said.
Hamlin’s shot disappeared when he found himself in the wrong lane on the final restart. He tried to hook up with Keselowski to get them back to Johnson, but blamed former teammate Joey Logano for ruining the momentum of the bottom lane.
Hamlin offered a backhanded apology to Keselowski on Twitter, posting that he couldn’t get close enough because ”your genius teammate was too busy messing up the inside line 1 move at a time.”