19 February 2006
Johnson defies odds to take Daytona victory.
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.
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