He’s been the most prolific championship hunter of his era in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
Sunday Jimmie Johnson could finally say he’s joined the exclusive club of multi-time Daytona 500 winners.
Johnson held off Greg Biffle and teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. over the final lap to win his second Daytona 500.
“Plate racing has been tough on [our team] as we all know for the last few years,” Johnson said. “Happy to get through it all. Just a strong racecar. I feel like the speed our car had in it allowed me to really have control of the race there late. I felt like I was sitting on something all day and was just ready to have some fun when it counted, and it did.”
Johnson won his first Daytona 500 in 2006. It proved a springboard that season to the first of five consecutive Sprint Cup Series titles for the driver from El Cajon Calif.
But while the Championships got stacked on the mantle, Johnson struggled to find success at NASCAR’s marquee event at Daytona International Speedway. Over the last six runnings of the event before Sunday, Johnson had finished no better than 27th in the race. Last year he went in a crash on the second lap and finished 42.
But with NASCAR’s new Generation Six cars came the return of pack racing, something Johnson said he prefers over the two-car tandem style events that had become the norm at restrictor plate events.
“Plate racing is an awfully tough form of racing, there’s a lot of luck involved,” Johnson said. “Pack racing is a little different. You can’t ride and kind of wait for things to happen, you have to race all day long and fight for track position.”
Johnson looked like he was setting himself to be a sitting duck on the final lap, but the Daytona 500 bad luck he had become so familiar with was nonexistent.
Earnhardt used a push from Mark Martin in the final corner to move past Biffle for second place. Earnhardt got Johnson’s bumper but could advance no further on the final run to the checkered flag. Martin ended up third.
“This racecar was so good,” Johnson said. [Crew chief] Chad Knaus and Hendrick Motorsports gave me a fast car and I could really stay up front all day long and I had a lot of confidence those final two laps leading the train because I knew just how fast this car was. Big credit to everybody at Hendrick Motorsports.”
Said Earnhardt: “I couldn’t have done much without [Martin] helping me here at the end. …. Once we come to turn four, we kind of run out of steam, didn’t have enough to get a run on Jimmie.”
Pole-sitter Danica Patrick raced with the lead pack most of the day but at crunch time she got shuffled back through the leading pack, settling for an eighth place finish, the highest finish ever in the event by a woman. The previous best finish by a female in the Daytona 500 was 11th by Janet Guthrie in 1980. Patrick also became the first female driver lead a Daytona 500, leading a total of five laps on the day.