Jimmie Johnson was back on top and back in victory lane at the end of the Coke Zero 400 Powered by Coca-Cola NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Daytona International Speedway, and all felt right with the universe once more after three weeks of relative jitters for the five time champion.

Not the case at Daytona International Speedway this week however, which he saw him lead for 94 of the 161 2.5-mile laps of the restrictor plate event, effectively keeping himself nice and safe all evening by being too far out in front to come to any harm in accidents sparked by others during the race. That allowed him to claim the chequered flag at the end while mayhem broke out behind him - the first time that a driver has claimed both Cup victories at Daytona in the same season since Bobby Allison in 1982.

"That is amazing," said Johnson when confronted with the historical context of his achievement. " Gosh, I remember being in Southern California watching Bobby Allison ... I always thought it was so great to watch Bobby and Davey race. To tie anything that Bobby has done is pretty special. Very happy tonight."

At the start, Matt Kenseth had narrowly led at the end of the first lap but after that it was his Joe Gibbs Racing team mate Kyle Busch who reasserted his pole winner right of possession to the top spot for the opening 25 laps through to the first caution of the night caused by fluid laid down by an engine blow-up for Paul Menard.

"Absolutely no warning, the water was 225 and we were just kind of riding there," said Menard of his unusually early engine failure from the normally rock-solid Chevrolet. "The car was really good, handled great. Kind of biding our time for the first pit stop came off turn four and something just let go. It wasn't smoking, it broke and I could hear it. I felt the heat come up. I didn't know if I was on fire or not. I couldn't feel it right away. Just unfortunate, we needed a good run and had a really good car today."

Taking the low line, Johnson managed to take the lead from Busch at the restart and took Kasey Kahne, Joey Logano and Dale Earnhardt Jr. with him to the front. Johnson led continuously from lap 33 through to lap 70, at which point it was Logano who brought out the second yellow of the night with an tyre blow-out.

"It was a right-front," said Logano, at a loss to suggest any cause for the problem. "I don't really know what it was. I really don't think I ran anything over and in looking it over it looks like a shoulder failure to me. I don't know why, I haven't seen any tyre issues out here."

The blow-out put Logano into the wall and did considerable damage to the #22 Penske racing car, although at least the driver was unhurt. "It was a big hit, but a bigger hit in the points, really. We'll have to fix this thing up and put a new right-front suspension on and get back out there to try and gain a couple more spots if we can. It's just a bummer - the Shell/Pennzoil team has done a great job all year gaining up some points. We'll lose a lot here, but we're not out of it by any means."

While Logano did resume late in the race, he ended up making up just a single place in the final standings for all the hard work of the Penske crew, as the only retiree he was able to overhaul in the time remaining was Martin Truex Jr., who crashed out on lap 97 after possible contact with Denny Hamlin. Kyle Busch was also caught up in the incident and sustained front end damage to the #18, and Juan Pablo Montoya was similarly collected.

"I'm not real sure to be honest with you," said Truex. "I watched the replay - I couldn't really even tell if he [Hamlin] hit us or not, or if it was just an error. It was strange.

"It felt like my left rear tyre blew out, it happened so fast," he continued. "So I'm not sure exactly if I was just in the worst position possible when the #11 came up on us. You can see before he even touched us I was turning sideways and totally unexpected because our car had been really good all night. It definitely never showed any signs of being loose.

"I think it was just that situation we were in it just spun it around," he decided. "I hate it for our guys. We had a good race car. We were just trying to take it easy and bide our time. Obviously, riding there and trying to stay in line and take it easy. We definitely needed the finish tonight. This is going to hurt us pretty bad [in the points standings.]"

Logano's earlier crash had come during a round of green flag pit stops that had jumbled the field somewhat for a time and left first Hamlin and then Jamie McMurray pacing the field from the front, but shortly after the latest restart Johnson was back in control again on lap 105 and thereafter surrendered the lead again only briefly for two laps during final pit stops under the next caution which came out on lap 128.

That was a multi-car but relatively harmless affair, sparked by Macros Ambrose nudging David Stremme in turn 4 which then caught up Aric Almirola, AJ Allmendinger and Greg Biffle. It was by no means the traditional Daytona 'Big One', but that came sure enough on lap 149, triggered by Denny Hamlin spinning and taking a hard nose-first hit against the frontstraight wall for the second time in consecutive weekends, after which Jeff Gordon, Matt Kenseth, AJ Allmendinger, Dave Blaney and David Reutimann were left going straight of the scene of the accident.

"I saw the side of the #11 car get turned and I tried - I was already around the top so I slowed down as much as I could and just got hit and was just kind of a ping pong ball," said Hamlin's team mate Matt Kenseth. "So, I'm not sure what started it, or really what hit me and got it. I just saw the wreck and tried to slow down and miss it. But there's just not much I could do."

Kenseth ended up off the lead lap as a result of the damage, as did Gordon, Blaney and Reuitmann. Hamlin and Allmendinger were done for the night, and the accident forced a nine minute reg flag stoppage for the track to be cleared up.

That meant a restart with just four laps to go to the chequered, and that meant no-holds-barred when the green flag came out: Jimmie Johnson was on the top line being pushed by Kasey Kahne, while Kevin Harvick had the bottom line with the assistance of Tony Stewart, but from further back Marcos Ambrose thought he detected an opening and went for it. Johnson moved to protect his position, Kahne had to follow the #48's lead, and there was a collision which sent Kahne hard into the inside wall.

"Jimmie moved up to block the outside row coming so I kind of at that point had the lead," explained Kahne. "Next thing I know I got slammed and shot left. It was the end of our night. It's kind of how these races go. You don't have a lot of control over some of the things that happen here. I'm happy our car was fast and we put a good showing out. We ran up front the whole race."

That left Johnson without Kahne's assistance at the green-white-chequered finish that extended the race distance by an extra lap, but he proved he didn't need it as he pulled sufficiently far ahead to keep him out of not one but two separate incidents that erupted as the #48 neared the finish line.

The first was sparked by Carl Edwards being spun at turn 2, which dropped him to 29th place in the final results which was costly in terms of the points standings. Ambrose, Landon Cassill, Joe Nemechek and Scott Speed were all caught up in the incident.

The second took place nearer to the finish line on the final lap and started when Danica Patrick was hooked sideways across the front of heavy traffic which ended up catching out Kyle Busch, David Gilliland, JJ Yeley, Jeff Burton, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Casey Mears, Greg Biffle, Ryan Newman and Terry Labonte.

"I had one to the inside of me," recalled Stenhouse from his perspective. "I thought I was gonna get shuffled back to about 15th there, and I saw the #88 form a line up top in the mirror and I saw the #10 was with him and had some good cars pushing him, so I thought they were all gonna get by me.

"Then all of a sudden a few of them got turned down the race track and I think the #10 got spun right in front of me and then all of a sudden we ended up across the finish line and nobody was in front of us, so it was a crazy finish," he explained.

"Junior and I had a good run through the middle and then up high around 4," said Patrick. "I just watched the replay, it felt like I ran just along the wall but it could have been me that came down in front of the #38.

"It definitely wasn't what I was trying to do at all," she sighed. "I was just following the #88. So, if that's what happened, then I definitely apologise. I lost spots doing it!"

It all left the race officials picking over jumbled telemetry and confused live timing data together with video footage in order to compile the correct finishing order as it was the split second that the race was declared over. That saved the blushes of some drivers - Mears held on to ninth place as a result of the call - but had no effect on the top eight all of whom crossed the line unscathed.

Johnson had of course clinched the win, his fourth of the year to put him in peerless form in the 2013 championship. Tony Stewart had pushed through to second place just ahead of Kevin Harvick, while it had been a strong night for Michael Waltrip Racing with Clint Bowyer picking up fourth place with the assist of the team owner himself who piloted the #55 to fifth place in Mark Martin's absence.

Kurt Busch finished in a strong sixth place, just ahead of Jamie McMurray and Dale Earnhardt Jr.

"That's awesome to have a good run like that and stay out of trouble and post a nice top ten," said Busch. "These Furniture Row guys have been working hard. We've made little mistakes here, there, and everywhere. When we start putting it together, it's now starting to bear the fruit and we've moved our way into the Top ten in points.

"That's pretty cool," he added. "We have a long way to go, and yet we still are getting better. I'm just real proud of these guys and the effort that we've put forth."

However Kurt's brother Kyle ended up a disappointing 12th place given his early lead, and reigning champion Brad Keselowski lost further ground with a 21st place finish as he goes through something of a mid-season slump putting him at risk of not making the 2013 Chase for the Cup.

Johnson's lead means that he opens up his lead again in the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship standings to 49 points; a poor finish at Daytona means Carl Edwards slips out of second spot and is replaced by Clint Bowyer. Early retirements in the race mean big falls for Joey Logano, Martin Truex Jr. and Paul Menard, while it's good news for two former Cup champions as Tony Stewart and Kurt Busch make big climbs to edge into the top ten, putting them potentially into Chase positions.

Full race results and Sprint Cup Championship standings are available.


Join the conversation - Add your comment

Please login or register to add your comment