DAYTONA BEACH, FLA. — 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 a year after completing just one lap in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Daytona 500 on Sunday. 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 Jr. 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 Jr. stormed toward his teammate.
“I couldn’t have done much without Mark helping me here at the end,” Earnhardt Jr. 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 Jr. 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.”