Five-time Sprint Cup Jimmie Johnson never doubted he’d win another Daytona 500 someday. But with each passing year, the frustration continued to mount.
“Restrictor-plate racing man, it’s like playing the lottery everybody’s got a ticket,” Johnson said on Sunday at Daytona International Speedway.
Johnson punched his ticket to his first Daytona 500 win since 2006 by passing defending Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski on a late restart and outracing Dale Earnhardt Jr. in a battle of Hendrick Motorsports teammates to the checkered flag.
Johnson had struggled mightily in the Daytona 500 after his 2006 win triggered the first of Johnson’s five straight Sprint Cup championships. His average finish in the last six races was 33.5 — 39th, 27th, 31st, 35th, 27th and 42nd last year when he turned just one lap after getting caught up in an accident.
“I’ve struck out a lot at these tracks, and left with torn-up race cars,” Johnson said. “Today we had a clean day. This will buy me a smile for sure the rest of the year on the plate tracks.”
On a day dripping with history — the debut of the Generation 6 Chevys, Fords and Toyotas — and pole sitter Danica Patrick becoming the first woman to lead a Daytona 500 and finish eighth, the best by a female driver — Johnson carved out a little history for himself.
Johnson, 37, became the 10th driver to win multiple Daytona 500s, and he became the sixth driver to win a Cup start in his 400th start, joining Hall of Famers Lee Petty, Richard Petty, David Pearson, and Dale Earnhardt along with Dave Marcis.
“Just to hear those names and my name in that sentence is pretty awesome,” said Johnson, who won his 61st Cup race, which ranks eighth all-time. “I am proud to be in that same category with those guys, and feel I have a lot of years left. I certainly hope to make more history and do other cool things within the sport.”
The victory also was the first Daytona 500 victory for Johnson’s longtime crew chief Chad Knaus, who was serving a NASCAR-imposed suspension when Johnson won in 2006.
“As you know, I eat, sleep and breathe 48 (race car),” a beaming Knaus said. “Anytime that I’m taken away from that race car, I’m pretty sad. But when those guys were able to come down here and win the Daytona 500 in 2006 in my absence, I think that really solidified the strength of the 48 car.
“To finally be able to come down here and win and be a part of this is definitely a huge dream come true.”
Johnson laid low in his Chevrolet during most of Sunday’s race while the Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas of Matt Kenseth combined to lead 150 laps and often were running 1-2-3. But as they started having mechanical issues, Johnson and Keselowski traded the lead until a restart found Johnson in lead with 10 laps to go.
“I ran second to fifth all day really,” Johnson said, “but you had such a small opportunity of time to get something done. For me the defining moment in the race was the caution coming out and ahead of the 2 (Keselowski). That gave me lane choice and really control of the race in the closing laps.
“I learned a lot through the course of the race with the new Gen6 car. I felt like I was sitting on something all day and was just ready to have some fun when it counted, and I did.”
Keselowski was gamely driving a Ford with a busted nose held together by tape, and he was no match for Johnson, or Earnhardt and Mark Martin, who finished third, a spot ahead of Keselowski.
“The yellow came out exactly when we were an inch or two behind Jimmie,” Keselowski said. “That set it up for him to have the high lane on the restart , and we weren’t strong enough with the damage to our car to do anything once that happened.”
Johnson didn’t derive any extra satisfaction that he beat the brash Keselowski to the checkered flag.
“As far as racing with Brad out there, you really lose sight of who is in what car,” Johnson said. “It’s just somebody between you and the trophy.”