BY CHAD DARE
DAYTONA, Fla. —
A new season, a new car and a hot new driver.
Those were the storylines entering Sunday’s 55th running of the Daytona 500.
When the checkered flag was displayed after 200 circuits on the 2.5-mile Daytona International Speedway, Jimmie Johnson had won his second Great American Race, the debut of NASCAR’s Gen-6 stock car brought about mixed reviews and Illinois native Danica Patrick had proven that she is more than just a pretty face.
Johnson, a five-time NASCAR champion, was a quiet competitor all week in Daytona but when it came winning time, the driver of the Lowe’s No. 48 Chevrolet had easily the best car.
“I didn’t feel like I was under the radar,” Johnson said. “I felt like we were working hard to put the best product on the track. I had a good run in the (Sprint) Unlimited until we crashed. In the Duel, I thought we were very competitive and that was a sign of things to come.
“I guess I was quiet in the overall spectrum of things from the media side. I think people in the garage knew we were sitting on a lot of speed and we had a very good racecar.”
But, ultimately, Johnson was able to win the race as the final caution came out with him leading last year’s NASCAR Champion Brad Keselowski by just inches.
“For me, the defining moment in the race was the caution coming out and the 48 being ahead of the 2,” Johnson said. “That gave me lane choice, and really control of the race in the closing laps.”
Keselowski, who took the lead when the caution flag waved on lap 178, admitted the yellow flag that flew 15 laps later for debris on the backstretch was a bad break. That piece of debris bounced off the front end of Keselowski’s Ford Fusion, but that damage didn’t bother the Michigan driver.
“I don’t know if it hurt the car or not. I definitely hit something big,” Keselowski said. “I was more concerned with the fact that the yellow came out exactly when we were an inch or two behind Jimmie. That set it up for him to have the high lane on the restart, and we weren’t strong enough with the damage to our car to do anything once that happened.
“You saw all day that the high lane was drastically faster than the lower lanes and that showed up there on the last restart, and he was able to drive away.”
Johnson ran basically uncontested over the final six laps to earn his 61st victory in his 400th Sprint Cup Series start. He is the sixth driver in NASCAR history to win in his 400th start joining NASCAR legends Lee Petty, Richard Petty, David Pearson, Dale Earnhardt and David Marcis.
“Just to hear those names and my name in that sentence is pretty awesome,” Johnson said. “I am so proud to be in that same category with those guys … I certainly hope to make more history and do other cool things within the sport.”
The only challenge to Johnson in the final laps came on the final circuit when Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Mark Martin hooked up in a draft slicing past the cars of Patrick and Greg Biffle to finish second and third respectively. It’s the third time in the past four years for Earnhardt to finish second in the Daytona 500.
“I couldn’t have done much without Mark helping me here at the end,” Earnhardt said. “Once we got to turn four, we kind of ran out of steam, didn’t have enough to get a run on Jimmie.”
And the biggest reason that no driver was able to pull off a last-lap pass during any race at Speedweeks this year was the Gen-6 stock car.
“It was really all about track position,” said Matt Kenseth, the defending champion of the Daytona 500 who finished 37th with engine problems. “You had to make your move in the first four or five laps on a restart to really be able to make anything happen.
“Fortunately, I was toward the front most of the day so I’m not really sure what it was like toward the back. I’m just disappointed that we finished here in the garage.”
Sunday’s race did feature 28 lead changes in 500 miles, but that paled in comparison to the 34 during Saturday’s Nationwide race that was just 300 miles in length. And Keselowski admitted that it wasn’t the type of racing that he liked.
“Of course you are frustrated by that,” he said. “You want to pass and get to the front. If you aren’t, then you aren’t a racer.
“We tried but it just didn’t work.”
Earnhardt said the Gen-6 car is doing everything that the teams wanted coming into the season.
“I think that package is really good,” he said. “The surface is still relatively new, which provides a ton of grip. If we had the old surface with this car, it would have been an incredible race, people sliding around, wearing tires out and just trying to dig as hard as they could. We’ll get that as the track ages.
“I’d hate to see them messing with the car to get a better package, because the track is in good shape. As the track changes, the tire will ultimately change and you’ll see guys moving around and different things will happen.”
And according to Johnson’s winning crew chief, Chad Knaus, just because cars weren’t running side-by-side for all 200 laps didn’t mean it was a bad race.
“Racing is more than side-by-side and crashing,” he said. “If you go back and look, there were different pit strategies, ways that guys took the lead on pit road, two-tire or four-tire strategy. The racing was pretty good if you go back and look at the nuts and bolts of it.”
And ultimately, the restrictor-plate style of racing at Daytona and Talladega accounts for just four of NASCAR’s 36 races in the season.
“They are going to be fast when we get to Phoenix next week,” said Michael Waltrip, a two-time Daytona 500 winner. “There’s a lot that we have to learn about them. It’s like getting a new toy – you don’t know how to play with it right away.
“I can’t wait to see the racing this year, it’s going to be good.”
And one of the most impressive performances on Sunday came from the lone lady in the race.
Patrick, who became the first woman to start from the pole in a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series event, spent almost all of her day running in the top-10 and with just one lap remaining, she was third but fell back to an eighth-place finish with Earnhardt and Martin zipping past her on the final lap.
“I would imagine that pretty much anyone would kick themselves and say what could I have, should I have done to give myself that opportunity to win,” she said. “I think Dale did a nice job and it shows what happens when you plan it out. You drop back, get that momentum and you’re able to go to the front.
“You know, I think he taught me something and I’m sure I’ll watch the race and there will be other scenarios out there that I’ll see that can teach me, too.”
Actually, Patrick proved that she already knows quite a bit about big-time NASCAR racing, earning a top-10 finish, a career first, in just her 11th Sprint Cup Series start. And next up is Phoenix where Patrick had one of her best races in 2012.
“It was nice to run like we did at the end of last year,” Patrick said. “I feel like it will give us a good baseline idea of how we need to set the car up.”
Patrick’s crew chief, Tony Gibson, was extremely pleased in the performance of the No. 10 Chevrolet.
“We definitely had a shot to win it there, and that’s all you can ask for,” he said. “Can’t do nothing about those guys getting runs on you. It is just the way it is. But, I am so proud of Danica and everybody on the GoDaddy Chevy SS.
“She impressed the heck out of me the whole day long.”
And Gibson wasn’t the only one singing her praises after the race as Patrick became the first woman to lead a lap in the Daytona 500 and she became just the 13th driver – male or female – to lead laps in the both the Indianapolis 500 and Daytona 500. Also in the group are such racing stars as A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti and Tony Stewart.
“She’s going to make a lot of history all year long,” Earnhardt said. “Every time I’ve seen here in a pretty hectic situation, she always really remained calm. She’s got a great level head. She’s a race. She knows what’s coming and she’s smart about her decisions.”
Even Sunday’s winner had something good to say about Patrick.
“I didn’t think about it being Danica in the car,” he said. “It was just another car on the track that was fast.
“That’s a credit to her and the job she’s doing.”