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Johnson takes first blood with Daytona 500 win

25 February 2013

Jimmie Johnson calmly worked his way to a second Daytona 500 win, his first since 2006, after early race leader Matt Kenseth suffered an engine failure and other leading contenders such as Tony Stewart, Kevin Harvick, Carl Edwards and Trevor Bayne all crashed out over the course of the 200-lap, 500-mile race at Daytona International Speedway on Sunday afternoon.

“There is no other way to start the season than to win the Daytona 500," said a delighted Johnson in victory lane after the race. "I'm a very lucky man to have won it twice." It's the first time since his 2006 win that he's even finished the event in the top 25.

"I'm very honoured to be on that trophy with all the greats that have ever been in our sport," he added. "Amazing day for myself, for this team, as the year goes we are excited!"

At the start of the race at 1.30pm local time, polesitter Danica Patrick had been unable to hold on to the race lead as the green came out and instead had to watch as Jeff Gordon took to the front for the whole of the first stint, which lasted through to the first debris caution on lap 26.

Two laps after the restart on lap 31, Gordon's Hendrick Motorsports team mate Kasey Kahne was spun out of fourth place through contact with Kyle Busch. That sparked a multi-car accident which also put Tony Stewart and Kevin Harvick in the garage for an extended period along with Kahne, Casey Mears and both Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing drivers, Juan Montoya and Jamie McMurray. Brad Keselowski's #2 Penske car also sustained damage in the incident, as did Kurt Busch's #78 Furniture Row Racing car.

"We were just running the line. The front three cars, for whatever reason, slowed down pretty quickly, so I was just on the brakes and trying not to hit Jeff," explained Kahne. "I got hit from behind - Kyle was probably getting pushed and it all happened so quick."

Jimmie Johnson led at the restart but was soon moved aside by Matt Kenseth going to the front. At the end of the first quarter, Kenseth and Johnson were being pursued by Patrick, Gordon and Busch with Penske Racing new boy Joey Logano in sixth place.

A problem with the jack during a green flag pit stop on lap 72 dropped Kyle Busch out of the top 30, while Richard Petty Motorsports' Aric Almirola received a pit road speeding penalty with similar results. After the pit stop cycle concluded, Denny Hamlin was in the lead with Michael Waltrip Racing's Martin Truex Jr. after the duo had leap-frogged Kenseth, Johnson and Gordon in pit road. Greg Biffle had meanwhile deposed Logano for sixth, and Patrick was now down in eighth place.

The single-file racing was interrupted by a debris caution on lap 85 which allowed the drivers quick return to pit road. A variety of strategies for further fuel and adjustments played out: Michael Waltrip stayed out on track and was followed by Patrick, Truex, Clint Bowyer, Hamlin and Biffle, with Johnson the highest position for a car on new right side tyres.

Patrick easily passed Waltrip for the lead at the restart on lap 89, becoming the first female driver in history to lead a lap of the Daytona 500 in the process - quite a moment, even if first Hamlin and then his Joe Gibbs Gracing team mate Kenseth took the lead back from Patrick two laps later. At the halfway mark on lap 100, the trio continued to lead ahead of Bowyer, Johnson and Waltrip.

The race continued uninterrupted to the next round of green flag pit stops starting on lap 126, after which Kenseth and Hamlin resumed in the lead ahead of Bowyer. Kyle Busch had recovered from his earlier mishaps to resume in fourth ahead of Mark Martin and Martin Truex Jr. making it an all-Toyota top six, while a couple of close calls on pit road had seen Danica Patrick exit in ninth place behind Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Greg Biffle.

2011 Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne brought out a new caution on lap 138 when he got into the back of Brad Keselowski's car in turn 1: the reigning champion was able to save his car and survive the encounter, but Bayne spun as a result and took out Carl Edwards in the process. Josh Wise, David Ragan, Austin Dillon, David Gilliland and Terry Labonte were also affected.

Racing resumed on lap 146, but there was bad news for race leader Matt Kenseth as his engine timed its blow-up to perfection and ended his hopes of back-to-back Daytona 500 victories. In what appeared to be a synchronised JGR team move, Kyle Busch's own engine also seized on him just minutes later. That left the last member of the team - Denny Hamlin - in the lead, but understandably nervous of the #11's durability and wary of pushing his own car too hard to the point of destruction during the remainder of the race.

Neither JGR retirement had triggered a caution, so the final round of pit stops took place under green starting on lap 173. The cycle was not quite complete when first Martin Truex Jr. became the latest Toyota to fail, and then Jeff Burton had a cut tyre that stuffed the Richard Childress Racing #31 into a hard impact with the wall on the frontstretch on lap 177. That brought out a caution at the moment that former F1 driver Scott Speed temporarily held the lead of the Daytona 500 pending his own visit to pit road.

Once Speed did make his final stop, it turned out that the driver most assisted by the timing of the caution was the late-pitting Brad Keselowski, who took the lead for the restart on lap 181 ahead of Johnson, Ambrose, Biffle and Hamlin; Patrick, Bowyer, Gordon, Ryan Newman and Mark Martin made up the rest of the top ten with less than 20 laps to run.

Even with Biffle's help, Keselowski - still nursing damage to his car from the early accident on lap 33 - wasn't able to hold off Johnson, who had just pushed into the lead on lap 191 when the two of them ran over debris in turn 2, triggering a new caution that set up a final six lap shootout

"Things just worked out well for me coming to the caution," admitted Johnson. "The #2 [Keselowski] got a big push and was way out and kind of falling back to the #16 [Biffle]. My lane was bunched up tight and helped me surge by the #2 at the start/finish when the caution came out. That was really the move that set things up for us."

The green came out again on lap 195 with Johnson and Biffle at the front, and Patrick initially backed by with Earnhardt to push past Keselowski and Martin. But in truth, once in front Jimmie Johnson always had the lead firmly under his control, as he was quick to admit. "Honestly once I had control of the race, I knew I was sitting on a lot of speed with this car. It was so fast.

"At the end it got exciting," he continued. "I was waiting for the run and it came further back than I expected. The #88 [Earnhardt] got a big shove and was coming up the inside. I moved down to defend that and we were able to get a one-two for Hendrick Motorsports."

Biffle over-thought things at the restart and ended up backing into Danica Patrick, who lost momentum as a result and dropped back to a still-creditable eighth place by the end of the race. That had given Earnhardt his opportunity to move into a strong second place backed by Mark Martin, with Brad Keselowski having to settle for fourth place ahead of Ryan Newman and Greg Biffle.

Overall it had been a remarkably calm and straightforward Great American Race, the new Generation 6 cars dispensing with the widely loathed two-car drafting scenario but lending itself instead to a single-file procession. The situation was possibly exacerbated by the drivers being mindful of the previous day's emotional drama at the end of the Nationwide support race which saw 28 spectators injured in a final lap crash.

"I just want to send my thoughts and prayers out to everyone that was injured yesterday and I hope they are healing up and doing well," said Johnson after the Sunday race. "I just want to give a big shout-out to all the fans."

As a result there was no such equivalent 'Big One' on Sunday, and everyone seemed to breath a little easier at the restraint shown, even if meant for a slightly less than thrilling opening to the 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup championship.

Meanwhile, Johnson certainly knows that as perfect a start to the season as this has been for him, it is only the first very small step on the road toward his hoped-for sixth Sprint Cup championship, and that a whole lot more work lies ahead of him.

"Next week is a whole different game," he said, looking forward to the second race of the season on Phoenix. "We will have to make sure we are buttoned up and ready to go there."


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