DAYTONA BEACH, FL – Jimmie Johnson captured the checkered flag for his 61st career win and his second Daytona 500 victory on Sunday afternoon, with the shadow of a disastrous end to the Nationwide race the day before still looming large on the track and with the media. Johnson sped away from the field after a restart with six laps left in Sunday’s Daytona 500 and held off a charging Dale Earnhardt Jr. to win the 55th running of the Great American Race at Daytona International Speedway.
Earnhardt finished second for the third time in the last four Daytona 500s. Mark Martin ran third, followed by defending series champion Brad Keselowski and Ryan Newman. Greg Biffle ran sixth and Regan Smith seventh.
With tandem racing all but absent in the points race for the new Gen-6 race cars, passing was difficult and track position paramount. “You can’t ride and wait for things to happen,” Johnson said. “You have to race all day long and fight for track position. This race car, this Lowe’s Chevrolet was so good. (Crew chief) Chad Knaus and all of Hendrick Motorsports had me a fast car, and I could really stay up front all day long. I had a lot of confidence in the final few laps leading the train, (because) I knew just how fast the car was.”
Earnhardt got a strong push from Martin on the last lap, but couldn’t catch Johnson off the final corner.
Polesitter Danica Patrick came home eighth, the best-ever finish by a woman in the Daytona 500. The previous mark was set by Janet Guthrie with an 11th place finish in 1980. Among her other accomplishments in an otherwise stellar day for Patrick and the GoDaddy.com Chevrolet, she also became the first woman to lead a green flag lap (Laps 90-91) in the Super Bowl of Motorsports as well as her Pole position start, another first for a female driver. “We stayed basically in the top 10 all day long,” she said. “You can’t really complain about that. It was nice.”
In an otherwise quiet race (no anticipated “Big One” in the final laps? Must be the new Gen-6 car.), there were a few notable cautions, including the first wreck of the race on lap 33, as the double-file lead pack of cars exited the tri-oval, which dashed the hopes of former Daytona 500 winners Kevin Harvick and Jamie McMurray, as well as those of pre-race favorites Tony Stewart and Kasey Kahne.
Later, a nine-car accident on Lap 138, thinned an already depleted field. With most cars running single-file around the top of the track, Keselowski tapped David Reutimann and dropped abruptly to the apron in Turn 1. That triggered a melee as cars checked up behind Keselowski. Carl Edwards was a victim of the accident, as ill fortune at Daytona continued to haunt the driver who already had wrecked four cars at Daytona this year.
Other casualties included 2011 Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne and Ricky Stenhouse Jr., making his first start as a full-time Cup driver in the No. 17 Roush Fenway Racing Ford Fusion.
Fortunately, none of the wrecks Sunday afternoon were as serious as that which happened in yesterday’s Nationwide event. The final lap of the DRIVE4COPD 300 unfolded in dramatic fashion with a heart-stopping wreck that saw Kyle Larson’s car demolished after flying into the crossover gate that provides access from the asphalt to the main grandstand. Larson climbed from his car almost immediately and was evaluated and released from the infield care center.
As race winner Tony Stewart dodged the crash and crossed the finish line, the front clip of Larson’s car sheared off, ripping the engine out of its compartment. The front suspension and engine ended up on the walkway at the bottom of the stands. A tire from Larson’s car also flew into the grandstands.
Watch video of the frightening crash below:
Twenty-eight people were injured and 14 of those were transported to local hospitals for treatment. At least 2 were in critical condition, including a 14-year-old boy. As of Sunday morning, before the Daytona 500, both of the seriously injured were reported as being in stable condition. Also, five others had been released from the hospital.
Other drivers were more concerned with the safety of the fans than the outcome of the race. “The important thing is what’s going on on the front stretch right now,” Stewart said, after climbing from his car. “We’ve always known since racing was started this is a dangerous sport. But it’s hard. We assume that risk. It’s hard when the fans get caught up in it. As much as we want to celebrate right now, as much as this is a big deal to us, I’m more worried about the drivers and fans in the stands right now. I could see it all in the mirror, and it didn’t look good from where I was either.”
Sam Hornish Jr. crossed the stripe in second place, followed by rookie Alex Bowman, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Parker Kligerman to round out the top 5.