By Rick Minter
From the start of Speedweeks through the closing stages of the Daytona 500, an overwhelming amount of focus was on Danica Patrick, first for her romance with fellow Sprint Cup rookie Ricky Stenhouse Jr., then for her winning the pole for the 500.
It continued on Sunday in the race as Patrick ran among the leaders all day and even became the first woman to lead the 500 under the green flag, when she took the top spot for the first time on Lap 90. She wound up leading five laps.
But with 10 laps to go, Jimmie Johnson, who had ridden under the media radar for most of Speedweeks, surged past Brad Keselowski into the lead and held it the rest of the way to score his second Daytona 500 victory.
Johnson, who stuck to single-car runs throughout the pre-race practices, said his speed at the end of the race shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone.
“At the end when it was time to go, I knew we had a straight race car with no scratches on it,” he said. “We worked real hard. We had a game plan down here every time. Even though we were in single-car drafts [in practice], we had an agenda and things we worked on and made the car a little bit better each day, kept perfecting it.
“I had one heck of a race car.”
He said that just because the media attention was elsewhere, it didn’t mean those truly in the know were caught off-guard.
“I guess I was quiet in the overall spectrum of things from the media side,” he said.“I think people in the garage, people knew we were sitting on a lot of speed and had a very good race car.”
Johnson said the key to his win was the pass of Keselowski with 10 laps to go, just before the caution flag flew. Because he was leading, he got to choose which lane he’d be in for the restart. He picked the preferred lane up high, and Keselowski wasn’t able to overcome the disadvantage, and faded to fourth behind the surging duo of Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Mark Martin, who finished second and third, respectively.
Patrick lined up third on the deciding restart, but faded to eighth at the end, which still was the best-ever Daytona 500 finish by a female. Sara Christian holds the all-time Cup record with a fifth-place finish at Pittsburgh in 1949.
Patrick said she needed more experience to truly contend for victory.
“I really didn’t feel like I had a great grasp as to ‘how do you go win this race,’” she said. “I hadn’t wrapped my head around exactly how that was going to happen.
“I kept thinking about it out there, because for the most part I was running half throttle for most of the race, running in the line. I will know better for next time and for Talladega. I mean the same stuff will probably apply.”
Johnson was among those praising Patrick for her performance.
“Being close to other competitors, door-to-door, whatever environment takes place on the race track, at these speeds, she was very comfortable, held a great wheel, was smooth and predictable, took advantage of runs when she had them,” he said. “She did a really good job.”
But Johnson cautioned that Patrick’s success at Daytona isn’t a sign that she’ll be a contender when the circuit moves to other types of tracks.
“I think the style of race track really suits her,” he said. “When we get to the other tracks, she has a tall learning curve ahead of her.”
Johnson also has some learning to do, as he and his crew chief Chad Knaus prepare to race NASCAR’s new Gen-6 race cars on the flat mile at Phoenix International Raceway this week and at the 1.5-mile Las Vegas Motor Speedway the week after.
Their Daytona 500 win won’t be any help there, said Knaus, who was enjoying his first Daytona 500 win, as he was suspended from NASCAR when Johnson won in 2006.
“That’s the thing that’s difficult about our sport,” he said. “You’ve got to move on relatively quickly and put the good things and the bad things behind you.”