Johnson back on top with 2nd Daytona 500 victory

Published on NewsOK Modified: February 25, 2013 at 2:35 am •  Published: February 25, 2013
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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Jimmie Johnson went two years without a title and suddenly became an afterthought at the Daytona 500.

All the attention went to Danica Patrick and a handful of other drivers.

Not that it mattered Sunday, because look who pulled into Victory Lane.

Five-time is back. Not that he ever went away.

Johnson won his second Daytona 500 on Sunday, a year after he completed just one lap in the race and three months after falling short in his bid for a sixth Sprint Cup title. That so-called drought had made him something of a no-name during Speedweeks.

"In my mind, I didn't feel like I was under the radar," he said. "I felt like we were working hard to put the best product on the track. I guess I was quiet in the overall spectrum of things from the media side. I think people in the garage, people knew we were sitting on a lot of speed and had a very good race car."

But in winning the biggest race of the year, the No. 48 team wasn't sending a message to the competitors.

"I don't think we went anywhere; anybody in the garage area, they're wise to all that," Johnson said.

Johnson's win came on the same day that Patrick, who became the first woman in history to start a Sprint Cup race from the pole, again made history as the first woman to lead laps in the Daytona 500.

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 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.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., 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 sizeable 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 Kasey Kahne was in the first accident Sunday — team owner Rick Hendrick was just fine with the finish.

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