The 55th Daytona 500 and first points race with the Gen-6 car went to the man who dominated most of the Gen-5 Car of Tomorrow era. Jimmie Johnson made the inside line work to grab the lead with 10 laps to go and held off all comers over the final six green flag laps to win his second career Daytona 500 on Sunday at Daytona International Speedway.
Dale Earnhardt Jr made a run to capture the win on the final lap with a push from Mark Martin but was only able to get to second past Greg Biffle and Danica Patrick before Johnson held him off coming off Turn 4 and down to the finish line. It was the third one-two finish for Hendrick Motorsports in the Daytona 500 and the seventh win for Rick Hendrick in NASCAR's biggest race.
"In this pack racing it 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 said in victory lane. "I could really stay up front all day long and I had a lot of confidence those final few laps leading the train because I knew how fast this car was."
It was the 400th start of Johnson's career and he scored his 61st career Sprint Cup Series win.
Overall the Daytona 500 had it's moments of excitement and two big crashes that took contenders out. For the most part cars ran single file around the top of the track as drivers were content to keep their track position and not risk trying to make a pass on the low side. The best racing of the day occurred after a restart with 19 laps to go until a caution with 10 laps left when Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski battled side-by-side for the lead with two equal lines drafting behind them.
Danica Patrick led the field to the green and chose the high-side. She was the first female driver to ever start from the pole in a Sprint Cup Series race. Jeff Gordon started on the inside line in second. Gordon was able to get the good jump and took the lead coming off Turn 2. By lap 12 the cars were all running single file with Gordon leading Patrick, Kyle Busch, Kasey Kahne, and Austin Dillon.
On lap 13 David Gilliland slowed when a plug wire came loose on his No. 38 Ford. The team would lose several laps making the repairs. During the first green flag run Gordon also picked up trash on his grill that made his No. 24 Chevrolet run hot. He was saved by the races first caution which came out on lap 27 for a piece of metal debris in Turn 3. Gordon was able to get his grill cleaned under caution to try to get the temps to go down. Joe Nemechek got the free pass after already being lapped. He would later pull off the track after only 42 laps and finished last in 43rd.
Gordon held the lead on the pit stops and led the field back to green on lap 31. Johnson showed how strong of a contender he was going to be by taking the lead on the bottom with help from Matt Kenseth on lap 32. A race changing crash on lap 33 brought out the second caution when the top line had an accordion effect occur when Gordon ran up on Kenseth. Kasey Kahne had to back off not to hit Gordon and when he did Kyle Busch could not lift in time to not touch Kahne.
The No. 5 spun to the low side and collected Juan Montoya. Sprint Unlimited and Duel #1 winner Kevin Harvick tired to slow his No. 29 car but got loose and hit the outside wall, he then slammed off the wall and down into Montoya where he spun back to the top in front of Tony Stewart who creamed him. Casey Mears and Jamie McMuarry also suffered damage that forced them to the garage for repairs. Brad Keselowski had some nose damage was able to make ample repairs and stay on the lead lap. Kurt Busch had some damage that ruined his day. Busch finished 28th five laps down. Mears finished 19 laps down in 29th, McMurray 39 laps down in 32nd, Kasey Kahne 50 laps down in 36th, Juan Montoya 56 laps down in 39th, Tony Stewart 82 laps down in 41st, and Kevin Harvick 153 laps down in 42nd.
The next run went through a round of green flag stops with Matt Kenseth showing the way for the most part. The third caution would come out on lap 85 for debris. On the lap 90 restart Michael Waltrip led in the outside lane after being the only car to not make a fuel only stop. Danica Patrick got off pit road first and started on the inside. She showed how fast she was today by getting past Waltrip and becoming the first women to ever lead a green flag lap at Daytona.
The lead was short lived as Denny Hamlin got by on the inside on lap 92 with help from his teammate Matt Kenseth. Kenseth then took the lead for himself on lap 93. At the halfway 100 lap mark in the race Kenseth led Hamlin, Patrick, Clint Bowyer, and Jimmie Johnson in single car line.
On lap 112 Gordon began having temperature issues again and was forced to give up track position and fell back through the field. Another green flag round of stops occurred with Kenseth holding the lead.
The fourth caution came out on lap 137 for the second big accident of the day. Again it was caused by an accordion effect. This time Brad Keselowski had to lift to not run into the cars ahead of him, when he did Trevor Bayne hit Keselowski hard in the back end. Bayne was then spun by Josh Wise who had nowhere to go. Bayne spun low into Carl Edwards and both cars went back up high where Ricky Stenhouse Jr, Terry Labonte, David Ragan, David Gilliland, and Austin Dillon also received damage. Stenhouse and Keselowski continued on the lead lap. Terry Labonte lost a few laps making repairs and wound up one lap down in 26th. Bayne was two laps down in 27th, Austin Dillon 25 laps down in 29th, Carl Edwards 41 laps down in 33rd, David Ragan 50 laps down in 35th, David Gilliland 56 laps down in 38, and Josh Wise 63 laps down in 40th.
On the restart on lap 146 Joe Gibbs Racing looked like it had control of the Daytona 500 and was poised to produce the winner. Matt Kenseth led Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch. Kenseth led the most laps with 86 on the day but on lap 149 he began to smoke and pulled down pit road with what he thought was a drive train issue. His day was done and he finished 51 laps down in 37th. Then on lap 151 Kyle Busch slowed from the second position and pulled into pit road with another engine issue for JGR. He finished 49 laps down in 34th. Hamlin continued on as the leader and led a total of 33 laps but ended up 14th after not being in the right lane late.
The fifth caution would come out on lap 176 during a round of green flag stops when Jeff Burton broke something in his right-front and slammed the wall in the tri-oval. He finished 24 laps down in 30th. Scott Speed and Michael Waltrip were the only two that had not pitted but did before the race went back green on lap 181.
This set up a nine lap stretch of the best racing that was seen all day. Brad Keselowski, with his bandaged No. 2 Ford from contact in two earlier incidents, led the high lane. Jimmie Johnson was second and on the bottom. Keslowski had help from Greg Biffle and Danica Patrick among others while Johnson was being pushed by Hamlin and Clint Bowyer along with a few more cars.
The two would trade the lead back and forth several times at the start finish line. Johnson was in the lead when they came across the line on lap 190 and then the sixth caution flew for debris on the track. Both Keselowski and Johnson hit debris on replays that were shown.
When the race went back green with six laps to go Johnson was now on the outside with Biffle and Patrick and Keselowski was on the inside with Hamlin and Boywer. The outside lane went leaving the inside fighting to try to get in line on the top. The top five with 2 laps to go was Johnson, Biffle, Patrick, Dale Earnhardt Jr, and Mark Martin.
NASCAR did not throw the caution flag when Travis Kvapil slammed the outside wall in Turn 1 and 2 on the final lap as all the cars involved kept moving. Earnhardt Jr got a great push down the backstretch from Mark Martin and the other cars behind also went low with them. Earnhardt and Martin drafted right by Patrick and Biffle entering Turn 3 and by the time they came off Turn 4 they were at Johnson's bumper but their run had stalled out. Johnson held the inside and took the checkered flag in front of Earnhardt and Martin.
Keselowski finished fourth, Ryan Newman fifth, Biffle sixth and Regan Smith seventh. Danica Patrick slid back to eighth but still scored her first career top 10 in the Sprint Cup Series and the highest finish for a female in the Daytona 500 ever.
"You need a hole, you needed people to help you out, I had a little bit of help today here and there but I felt like if I was to drive low I had a feeling I was going to get freight trained," Patrick said about why she did not make a move to try to win.
Michael McDowell finished ninth for Phil Parsons Racing for his first career top 10 finish in 155 races and JJ Yeley finished tenth for Tommy Baldwin Racing. It was Yeley's first top 10 since 2008.
Clint Bowyer was 11th and Ricky Stenhouse Jr finished 12th. He got into Kvapil to get the No. 93 into the wall on the final lap. Kvapil ended up with heavy damage and did not finish the final lap and was scored 25th. Aric Almirola was 13th, Denny Hamlin 14th, Bobby Labonte 15th, David Reutimann 16th, and Dave Blaney 17th. The rest of the lead lap cars were slowed by avoiding the crash and some had damage in the action. Marcos Ambrose was 18th, Joey Logano 19th, Jeff Gordon 20th, Paul Menard 21st, Michael Waltrip 22nd, Scott Speed 23rd, and Martin Truex Jr, who developed an engine issue while running strong with 25 laps to go was 24th.
In all there were 29 lead changes among 14 different drivers. Next week the Sprint Cup Series moves to Phoenix International Speedway for the first race for the Gen-6 car on a 1 mile track.
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