Jimmie Johnson held off Dale Earnhardt Jr. to win the Daytona 500 for a second time as Danica Patrick finished eighth to secure the best result for a female driver in the 55-year history of Nascar’s marquee race.
Twelve months ago, Johnson crashed after completing just one lap at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona, Florida.
Yesterday, the five-time Sprint Cup winner took the lead for good on lap 191, pulled away from Brad Keselowski on the final restart with six laps left in the 200-lap event and withstood challenges from runner-up Earnhardt and third-place finisher Mark Martin to win “The Great American Race.”
“I feel like the speed our car had in it allowed me to really have control of the race there late,” said Johnson, whose team received $1.5 million for the win. “I felt like I was sitting on something all day and was just ready to have some fun when it counted, and it did.”
Patrick, the first woman to start from the pole position for a race in Nascar’s top series, remained in the top 10 for most of the day in improving on her 38th-place finish in her Daytona 500 debut last year.
The best previous Daytona 500 finish for a woman was by Janet Guthrie, who placed 11th in 1980 and was 12th in 1977. Shawna Robinson, the only other woman to compete in the race, finished 24th in 2002. Patrick had been in third place with just over a lap remaining yesterday.
“It was a solid day,” Patrick said. “We stayed basically in the top 10 all day long, so you can’t really complain about that.”
The last driver to win the Daytona 500 from the pole position was Dale Jarrett in 2000.
The Daytona 500 was held a day after more than 30 spectators were injured at the racetrack when Kyle Larson’s car crashed through a barrier and sent debris into the crowd.
Workers had finished repairing a 54-foot (16.5 meter) wide section of fencing at midnight, just hours before the race started with Patrick on the pole.
Jeff Gordon, who began the race second on the grid, passed Patrick’s Chevrolet on the first of 200 laps. Gordon, the 1997, 1999 and 2005 champion, has now held a lead during 17 of his 21 starts at the Daytona 500.
Johnson’s Chevrolet took the lead for the first time on lap 33 after a six-car pile-up brought about the third caution of the race.
Two-time winner Matt Kenseth claimed first place on lap 38 and held it until he made a pit stop on lap 71 along with Johnson and Patrick. Kenseth led four times for a total of 86 laps, the most of any driver, before dropping out with 51 laps remaining as smoke vented from his car.
Patrick moved back in front on lap 90 before dropping back to third place at the halfway stage. Kenseth led again through 126 laps, when Patrick moved briefly back into first place before making a pit stop with 70 laps to go.
“It was nice to lead later on in the race, just to have done that,” Patrick said.
The leaders made their final pit stops on lap 172, leaving Keselowski, the 2012 Sprint Cup champion, in first place with 25 laps to race. Scott Speed became the 13th driver to lead the race on lap 178 as Jeff Burton hit the wall to bring about the fifth caution with Patrick in sixth place.
Racing resumed with 19 laps to go and Patrick immediately moved up to third place behind Keselowski and Biffle. Johnson and Denny Hamlin moved down the inside to drop Patrick back to fifth place with 15 laps remaining.
Johnson went ahead with nine laps to go before racing was suspended by the sixth caution. When racing resumed with six laps to go, Johnson maintained his lead over Keselowski.
A final-lap crash wasn’t significant enough to halt racing, as Patrick failed to keep pace with her rivals and Johnson held on to become the 10th multiple winner of the race.
“For me the defining moment in the race was the caution coming out and the 48 being ahead of the 2,” Johnson said of his car staying in front of Keselowski. “That gave me lane choice and really control of the race in the closing laps.”
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