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Johnson defies odds to take Daytona victory

19 February 2006

With his regular crew-chief Chad Knaus barred from the Daytona International Speedway and watching the race on his TV at home, Jimmie Johnson and stand-in crew-chief Darian Grubb won the biggest race in NASCAR on Sunday as they triumphed in the Daytona 500.

Amidst low cloud and an interminable fog, Johnson finally made it to the front of a snarling and somewhat bad tempered pack with a high-groove move on his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Brian Vickers on lap 186 of a scheduled 200, just seconds before the caution flag waved for the ninth time as Jamie McMurray clipped Kurt Busch coming off turn two, triggering a minor wreck as defending Daytona 500 winner Jeff Gordon and double 500 winner Sterling Marlin both ran into a slowing Busch.

With the majority of the field electing not to make a late pit stop for fuel or tyres, Johnson had Vickers, Ryan Newman and Casey Mears as his closest pursuers when the green flag waved with ten laps to go. Despite losing the support of Vickers on lap 194 when Newman forged ahead in turn three, Johnson kept the lead, although a somewhat fortuitous caution flag on lap 196 when McMurray hit the turn two wall hard after contact with pole sitter Jeff Burton, prevented Newman from mounting his expected assault.

The tenth caution flag of the race resulted in an almost predictable Green-White-Chequered flag finish and another dose of the now familiar 'overtime' rule.

For the final two lap sprint Johnson had Newman, Mears, Elliott Sadler and Dale Earnhardt Jr as his closest pursuers, with Sadler and Earnhardt Jr both holding back slightly on the restart in the hope of getting enough of a run in the draft to propel them past the #48 machine on the high line.

Clinging to the yellow out of bounds line at the bottom of the speedway for all he was worth, Johnson led into the final lap as Earnhardt Jr broke ranks behind him and tried to make a second groove. The move wasn't well enough supported by those immediately behind the driver of the #8 Budweiser Chevrolet for it to work as Johnson, Newman and Mears pulled clear.

Heading into turn three Mears dove low, toying with the out of bounds line, but managed to squeeze past Newman for second, by which time Johnson had a lead of several car lengths. As the pack raced two by two off turn four behind Johnson, Greg Biffle spun his Roush Racing Ford half way around turn three, somehow missing everybody else but doing enough to bring out the eleventh caution flag of the day and end the race a couple of hundred yards short of the finish line.

Caution flag or not, Johnson would still have won such was his advantage heading into the tri-oval, scoring his first Daytona 500 victory and the sixth for team boss Rick Hendrick. Made especially sweet by the controversy surrounding Knaus, Johnson's win proves beyond all doubt that his #48 team are title winning material.

Behind him, NASCAR was left with a timing and scoring nightmare, for as the field is automatically frozen when the caution flag comes out, the event organisers then had to thread through all footage to judge who was ahead of who at the exact moment of caution. With more than 30 cars still on the lead lap, many of them in very close proximity to one another, it was some time before something resembling even an un-official finishing order was established.

Mears was credited with second after a very mature drive in Chip Ganassi's #42 Texaco/Havoline Dodge resulted in him taking the best result of his Nextel Cup career to date. Although Mears was not one of a race record 18 drivers to lead a lap in a race that finished under the lights at the 2.5-mile restrictor plate oval, he moved stealthily up towards the top ten during the third quarter of the race before settling in the lead draft for the final 20 laps.

Newman's path to third was somewhat more fraught, for although he led on several occasions, two near misses on pit road, one with Johnson the other with Ken Schrader, plus a separate near disaster when Matt Kenseth spun backwards up the track in front of track after back straight contact with Tony Stewart, resulted in Newman's position fluctuating throughout the race.

After leading several laps around one quarter distance, Newman regained the point after a fierce battle with Earnhardt Jr between laps 160 and 165 and held onto the lead until the eighth caution flag of the day on lap 175 when Travis Kvapil scraped the turn four wall. During the ensuing pitstops, Newman had his near-collision with Schrader and lost several positions that would prove critical.

Elliott Sadler, who finished fourth, was another driver who bobbled up and down the order during the middle portion of the race only to come good at the end and he held off Tony Stewart on the final run to take the honour of being the best placed Ford mounted finisher.

Stewart certainly didn't gain many friends on a day where more rivalries than partnerships were cultivated and was involved in several of the races many talking points and minor controversies. Two separate miracle saves showcased the awesome ability of the defending Nextel Cup champion, but the impetuous driver of 2002 also surfaced as he refused to yield to Jeff Gordon in turn two on lap 47, resulting in both drivers making contact with the outside wall and seriously denting their chances.

Some 60 laps later Stewart was involved in more controversy, as he blatantly forced Matt Kenseth onto the back straight grass while battle for second place. Somehow the following pack all managed to avoid Kenseth, as he slid back up the racetrack in turn three and into the outside wall and while Stewart sustained no further damage, he somewhat ironically became the first driver in Nextel Cup competition to be given a penalty for 'overly aggressive driving,' a penalty that his comments following last weekend's Bud Shootout went a long way towards invoking.

Stewart was also involved in the only other 'aggressive driving' penalty of the day, although on this occasion he was on the receiving end of it as Kyle Busch's back straight block, which left Stewart's #20 Joe Gibbs Racing Chevrolet momentarily broadside at nearly 190mph, also raised NASCAR's ire with less than ten laps remaining. The resulting penalty left Busch a disappointed 26th after a race in which he showed potentially race winning speed.

Behind Stewart, Clint Bowyer led the seven strong Raybestos Rookie of the Year contenders with a fine drive to sixth position in Richard Childress' #07 Jack Daniels Chevrolet after sitting mid-pack for much of the race and timing his run to the front perfectly. Bowyer edged out Brian Vickers, who led the field convincingly for a bunch of laps right until Johnson's decisive move on lap 186. Vickers was still a player in his #25 Hendrick Chevrolet right until the final five laps when he eventually found himself on his own on the high line and dropped to seventh.

Eighth place finisher Dale Earnhardt Jr was predictably a threat in the #8 DEI Chevrolet although he suffered from the lack of a regular drafting partner at the head of the race. Several times Dale Jr wrestled the lead away from his rivals but he also found himself 'hung out to dry' on more than one occasion.

The most costly of these 'no friend' moments saw 'Dune Bug' plummet from the top eight to 21st on lap 183 and despite some typically Earnhardt style moves in the following laps, he was unable to fully recover.

Veteran Ken Schrader used his experience to gouge out a ninth place finish on his debut with the Wood Brothers team while Dale Jarrett, whom Jeff Green blamed for the biggest actual accident of the race on lap 79, finished tenth.

Mark Martin finished his final Daytona 500 in 12th place after leading several laps and running at the front for much of the day while Robby Gordon recovered from a puncture and a brush with the wall to finish 13th. Kevin Harvick had to change a carb mid race but recovered to 14th while Kenseth, who was decidedly unhappy at Stewart and served a one lap penalty for making contact with the #20 Home Depot Chevrolet whilst exiting pit road, completed the top 15.

Bill Elliott's return to Daytona resulted in a 19th place finish while Kirk Shelmerdine's fairytale run ended with Dale Earnhardt's former crew-chief taking a career best 20th place finish.

Jeff Gordon was heading back to the front of the pack after his contact with Stewart when he became the victim of Kurt Busch's lap 186 brush with the wall and could only manage a 28th place finish while pole man Jeff Burton was the last car on the lead lap in 32nd after his late crash with Jamie McMurray. Bobby Labonte's first run with Petty Enterprises ended when he caught a piece of the Burton/McMurray collision while Carl Edwards earned the dubious distinction of becoming the first official DNF of the season when he rode over the top of Kyle Petty in the aftermath of the Jarrett/Green collision that, like the Kenseth/Stewart clash, ended with one car (Green) spinning backwards up the track in turn three in front of oncoming traffic.

Whereas the field managed to miss Kenseth, Green wasn't so lucky, as J.J Yeley and Joe Nemechek both piled into the #66 Haas CNC Racing Chevrolet with Edwards running over Petty as they scrambled to avoid the mess.

So after the biggest and most drawn-out race of the year Jimmie Johnson stands triumphant. The rest of the field may have another year to wait before they get the chance to take his crown away, but there are only seven days until the next race in California, when Johnson can certainly be dethroned.