Jimmie Johnson held off teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. Sunday to score his second career win in the season-opening Daytona 500.
Johnson kept his Lowe’s Chevrolet in front of the field in the frantic last laps dash to the checkered flag to add a win in the 55th running of “The Great American Race” to his 2006 victory.
The five-time champion notched the thrilling win in his 400th career Sprint Cup Series start.
Johnson was ahead on the final green flag restart after a caution bunched up the field for a piece of aluminum that was picked up off the track. Brad Keselowski and Denny Hamlin were tucked behind with Earnhardt Jr., Mark Martin and Danica Patrick all in the mix.
But as the field raced to the finish line, Johnson was able to fend off the challenge from Earnhardt who could not mount a serious charge for the win.
“Plate racing is an awfully tough form of racing and there’s a lot of luck involved,” said Johnson, who had finished 27th or worse since his 2006 Daytona win. “You have to race all day long and fight for track position. This race car, this Lowe’s Chevrolet was so good. Chad Knaus and all of Hendrick Motorsports had me a fast car and I could really stay up front all day long.
Johnson said he was in the place he wanted to be as the laps wound down – the front.
“I had a lot of confidence in the final few laps leading the train, so I knew how fast the car was,” he said. “So big credit everybody at Hendrick Motorsports.”
Earnhardt, who had trouble during the week including a blown engine, came within a whisker of winning his second Daytona 500.
“I was hoping (Martin) was thinking what I was thinking," Earnhardt said. "I was going to with him and backed up to him and get a run off 2 and see what we could do, but we just kind of ran out of steam off 4. It just didn’t work out for us. It was a good move, it just didn’t work out."
Defending champion Keselowski looked like he was in the catbird’s seat on the final laps but wasn’t able to get the right draft to move around to the front of the field.
"Certainly the high lane had all the speed," said Keselowski, who had damage on his Penske Racing Ford from earlier contact on the race track. "We caught a bad break when that yellow came out. But that's just the breaks. We were fortunate to make it through some of the wrecks today … but damn, I wanted to win this race ... but it wasn't in the cards today."
At the finish it was Johnson, Earnhardt Jr., Martin, Keselowski and Ryan Newman rounding out the top five.
Greg Biffle, Regan Smith, Danica Patrick, Michael McDowell and JJ Yeley completed the first ten finishers.
Patrick, who started from the pole and was in the third spot on the final lap, got shuffled back to eighth. But after starting from the pole, she raced inside the top 10 most of the afternoon.
Patrick also made history by becoming the first female driver to lead the Daytona 500.
“It's always a little frustrating when you are top three on that last lap. But I will learn more for next time," Patrick said. "I didn’t really feel like I had a good grasp of how to go win this race. I hadn’t wrapped my head around that.
"I was running half-throttle most of the race, running in line, but I will know better for next time.
The season got off to a bad start for a number of contenders who weren’t able to compete for a win very long Sunday afternoon.
A crash broke out on lap 34 when Kyle Busch made contact with Kasey Kahne to trigger a multi-car accident that swept up nine cars including Tony Stewart and Kevin Harvick, who had won the week’s Sprint Unlimited and Budweiser Duel race.
“The hell with the season, I wanted to win the Daytona 500,” said Stewart, winner of Saturday’s Nationwide race.
Another incident happened with 63 laps to go that added another misery to Carl Edwards’ frustrating Speedweeks. Keselowski and 2011 Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne made contact and mayhem ensued.
Edwards’ crumpled car was the fifth machine he damaged while in Daytona.
Joe Gibbs Racing had a disappointing day as two of the team’s drivers were eliminated with engine problems while running near the front of the field. Both Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch were knocked out with about 50 laps to go.
There were 28 lead changes among 14 different drivers. The race was had six cautions for 24 laps with Johnson’s average speed 159.250 mph.
The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series now heads to Phoenix Int’l Raceway for next Sunday’s running of the Subway Fresh Fit 500.