Jimmie Johnson celebrates in Daytona's Victory Lane. (ASP, Inc.)
NASCAR’s new Gen-6 car gave way to a new style of drafting in the Great American Race, while newcomer Danica Patrick once again made history. The ultimate result, though, was all too familiar. Jimmie Johnson scored career Cup win No. 61 by holding off a charging Dale Earnhardt Jr. on a frantic final lap to win the 55th Daytona 500.
“This Lowe’s Chevrolet was so fast,” said Johnson, a two-time 500 champion. “Chad (Knaus, crew chief) did an amazing job. We stuck to our plan all week long, kept the car straight through the practice sessions and the Duel and knew it was a fast car that would race well. We got that done here today.”
Johnson led 17 laps on the afternoon, but took the lead for good with 10 laps remaining, just prior to the event’s final caution.
“My lane was bunched up tight and helped me surge by the No. 2 (Brad Keselowski) at the start-finish line when the (final) caution came out,” Johnson said. “That was the move that set things up for us.”
Leading the high line on the ensuing restart with six laps to go, Johnson, Greg Biffle and Patrick shoved their way out front. With Denny Hamlin and Clint Bowyer in tow, Keselowski attempted to pull the low line alongside Johnson, but three-wide racing took over as drivers scrambled for position, breaking up the run.
That’s when Earnhardt made his move — a move that would ultimately come up short.
The 2004 Daytona 500 winner lurked in fifth when the field took the white flag, but hooked up with Mark Martin in a sleek, two-car draft. Slicing low on the backstretch, the pair drafted under Patrick and Biffle, nearly pulling even with the leader.
“Once we came off of (Turn) 2, we just mashed the gas and got a run on Danica and side-drafted a little bit,” Earnhardt said of the last-lap move. “Once we come to (Turn) 4, we kind of ran out of steam. We didn’t have enough to get to Jimmie.”
“The end got exciting,” Johnson said. “The 88 (Earnhardt) got a big shove and was up the inside and I moved down to defend that.”
That move, combined with Earnhardt’s momentum stalling in Turns 3 and 4, allowed Johnson to shut the door. The Hendrick Motorsports teammates ran nose-to-tail through the tri-oval, with Johnson winning by .129 seconds. Martin, Keselowski and Ryan Newman rounded out the top 5.
“There’s no better way to start the season than to win the Daytona 500,” Johnson said. “I’m a very lucky man to have won it twice. I’m very honored to be on that trophy with all the greats that have ever been in our sport.”
Passing was at a premium over the course of the 200-lap, 500-mile race — and that suited Patrick, who qualified on the pole. She became the first female to lead a green flag lap in Cup competition — she led five laps total — and rarely dropped out of the top 10, backing up the speed her Chevrolet showed in qualifying.
“It was nice to lead laps in the race — just to have done that,” said Patrick, who finished eighth. “It was a steady day.”
A clean start to the race evolved into a largely single-file procession that was punctuated by a nine-car accident on lap 34 that eliminated many of the favorites. Kevin Harvick, Kasey Kahne and Tony Stewart were among those forced to the garage when Kyle Busch got into the back of Kahne, turning him in front of the field.
“The cars in front of us slowed up, so I was just slowing up right on Jeff Gordon’s bumper,” Kahne said. “I got hit from behind. Kyle was probably getting pushed and it all happened so quick.”
“To hell with the season,” a frustrated Stewart said. “I wanted to win the 500.”
The three Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas took over at that point. Matt Kenseth led 83 of the next 115 laps with teammates Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin neatly tucked in behind. But the complexion of the race changed on lap 149, when Kenseth — while leading — and Busch retired due to engine issues within two laps of one another.
Hamlin led the next 23 laps until Keselowski and Johnson began swapping the lead over the final 26 circuits.
The win was Hendrick Motorsports’ seventh Daytona 500 triumph and came in Johnson’s 400th career start. Johnson joins Dale Earnhardt Sr., Dave Marcis, David Pearson and Lee and Richard Petty in having won in their 400th starts.
“It’s a huge honor,” Johnson said. “There’s no other way to put it. Any time you’re mentioned with those greats, it’s a huge honor.”
Sunday's Daytona 500, the 55th in the long, storied history of The Great American Race, officially has the field set. There are endless stories emanating from NASCAR's biggest event, but here are the five that will most impact Sunday's race.
No horsing around: Harvick is the favorite
There's just one NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver batting 1.000 with trophies on the line in 2013: Kevin Harvick. Both of those trophies, of course, have come in the last week at Daytona where NASCAR's resident "lame duck" has scored impressive wins in the last Saturday's Sprint Unlimited and the first race of Thursday's Budweiser Duel at Daytona.
But statistics aren't the only thing supporting Harvick's case as the head-turning favorite before Sunday's race. Instead, it's the manner in which Harvick has taken control at the end of both races and held on with the grip of a vice.
In the Sprint Unlimited, Harvick first moved to the lead on lap 34 of the 75-lap, three-segment race. Just twice, and for two total laps, did the No. 29 not cross the start-finish as the designated leader. And when the heat turned up on the final lap, Harvick was able to play both lanes and make a bold, sweeping block of Greg Biffle on the backstretch of the money lap. He wasn't pressured again before the checkered flag.
Thursday was much the same in his 150-mile qualifying race, except Harvick was better. A savvy move exiting pit road pinned Trevor Bayne — the only other driver to lead Duel No. 1 — against the infield grass and then behind him as the two rushed through the gears to get up to speed. Bayne never recovered and eventually ended up in a crash while Harvick maintained his position. Even the restart wasn't a hassle for the No. 29, as Harvick managed the high then low line to keep competitors at bay and the Budweiser victory lane bath in sight.
Afterward, many of his competitors noted handling played a huge role in their ability to challenge. Harvick seemed almost incredulous at the thought.
"We never experienced any of that," Harvick said. "I think it's a matter of how you came down here with the balance of your race car."
Translation: the No. 29 is good. You can bet the field has taken notice.
Follow the leader
One factor playing into Harvick's hand as he has dominated so far is the apparent advantage held by the leader in the Gen-6 chassis when drivers form the long, snake-like lines of cars. Just seven different drivers led in the qualifying races Thursday, with just four of them leading for more than one lap.
"It's hard to pass the leader," Kyle Busch said after winning the second Duel race. "Just stay out front when you can get out front and you can run pretty good and just try to hold everybody off behind you."
That showed on the final lap of Busch's race when Kasey Kahne, with a push from Austin Dillon, edged under Matt Kenseth in second but couldn't punch past Busch. Kahne never even got alongside Busch.
"It's really tough to pass. When another car gets near your rear tire, it's like you threw the parachute out," Jimmie Johnson said.
Harvick and Jeff Gordon said Daytona now requires more planning to make a pass for position — not just finding someone to push like the recent years of tandem racing at restrictor plate tracks. The consequences can be dire.
"You've just got be precise in your moves," Harvick said. "If you get yourself in the wrong spot like we did at the beginning of the race in the middle, you just can't go anywhere. The only place you're going is backwards. It's hard to get yourself into the hole that you need when you make a mistake."
Gordon agreed, saying Daytona in 2013 feels like the Daytona of old.
"This is a real thinking race now. It comes down to the way it used to," Gordon said. "You get yourself in position. Everybody kind of rides, and thinks about what they have. You have to have your car handling pretty good, which is tough to do further back in traffic."
But Gordon, a three-time Daytona 500 winner, doesn't think passing the leader will be completely impossible come Sunday”
"You have got to have somebody go with you; you can't do it by yourself. But you can get a run, definitely. No doubt about it.”
Handling the unexpected
In order to get the kind of run Gordon is talking about, and to time it at the point where it'll put a driver in prime position to walk away with that coveted Harley J. Earl trophy, a driver has to first be in the position to make that move. In a 500-mile race, that's no easy feat.
No, the Daytona 500 isn't the same test of attrition that it once was. Parts last longer. Teams hit setups with more regularity. Drivers, typically, are smarter.
But 500 miles is still 500 miles — especially with a new car putting drivers more on the edge than they were with the stuck-to-the-track Car of Tomorrow chassis. Ryan Newman found that out during Wednesday's practice, and Denny Hamlin found it out late in the first qualifying race Thursday. Both suddenly lost control of race cars that weren't handling particularly poorly before they encountered a set of aerodynamic variables strong enough to send the car into a spin quicker than a blink of an eye. That will happen again Sunday and a driver (or drivers) in contention will pay the price.
It's a measure of the new car that has several, including Dale Earnhardt Jr., searching for answers in the two days of practice left before the 500.
"I didn't anticipate really the balance being a big deal because the car does have a good downforce package; we thought the balance would be pretty close," Earnhardt Jr. said. "(I) figured we would be fighting loose a little bit. We have to work on it."
Should drivers withstand that challenge, they'll have to be ready to execute flawless pit stops, too. Kyle Busch took the lead in the second qualifying race thanks to a call for no tires during his pit stop. Trevor Bayne lost his lead in the first race partially because he locked up his tires coming to pit road under green, necessitating a change. Busch wound up winning his qualifying race; Bayne wrecked.
"Pit crews are going to make a huge difference on Sunday," said Tony Stewart. "That's going to be the difference between which pack you come out in. You're going to have to have good stops to stay up there all day."
Like Gordon said, Sunday will feel more like Daytona of old. Carl Edwards, despite wrecking four times at Daytona, is looking forward to that.
"There will be groups of cars that separate themselves, some pit strategy and some guys that slide around and can't keep up," Edwards said. "I think it will make it a really dynamite, fun race."
Not everyone will leave Daytona Sunday night using the words Edwards did, but you can bet one of NASCAR's three competing manufacturers will be celebrating well into the night.
For the first time since the 1990s, cars in the Sprint Cup Series actually resemble their showroom counterparts. It's been a concerted effort by NASCAR, after pressure from those manufacturers, to make those comparisons easier.
It also introduces the realistic potential of Chevrolet, Ford or Toyota having a slight advantage come race day thanks to their body design. NASCAR has worked to prevent the issues, but competitors are competitors, and competitors like to complain.
Just look at the starting lineup for Sunday's race: seven of the top-10 are Chevrolets. If the finishing order resembles that, Jack Roush's comments won't be far behind.
Danica Patrick and crew chief Tony Gibson. (ASP, Inc.)
And of course, especially at the start, all eyes will be on the most historic moment Daytona has seen in years as Danica Patrick leads the field to green as the first woman to ever win the pole position of a Daytona 500 — or any NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race.
Patrick, 17th in her qualifying race, didn't do much to turn heads in the one dose of racing experience she's had at Daytona this year. Her team's goal Thursday was to play it conservative and finish with the green No. 10 intact.
Mission accomplished — even if Patrick didn't feel she gleaned much from the racing.
"I'll be really honest, I didn't feel like I got a lot of experience on how to pass or the draft so much. I was able to hang with the group," Patrick said.
Patrick and Co. were worried about the car being too loose during the race and tightened the car up more and more leading to Thursday's 150-miler. She did later confirm that turning 60 laps in race conditions did prove at least somewhat valuable.
"I guess I did learn that being too tight is pretty detrimental here," Patrick said. "If you can't keep your foot in it and run up behind cars, then you're going to struggle to make moves. It looks really hard to pass, to be honest."
Patrick, who crashed on lap two in her first Daytona 500 start one year ago, should drastically improve her showing this time around. Expecting a win, though, is way too much.
by Geoffrey Miller. Check back each Friday, as Geoffrey Miller examines the five storylines to watch entering each NASCAR weekend. And follow Geoffrey on Twitter: @GeoffreyMiller