Jimmie Johnson made his 400th career start in the Sprint Cup Series a very special one by winning Sunday's Daytona 500.
Johnson, the five-time series champion, held off a last-lap challenge from Hendrick Motorsports teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. to win the 500-mile race at Daytona International Speedway for the second time. His first victory in this event came in 2006.
He became the 10th different driver to win multiple Daytona 500s in the 55- year history of this event. The 37-year-old from El Cajon, Calif. also joined NASCAR legends Dale Earnhardt, Richard Petty, Lee Petty and David Pearson as those who won a race in their 400th start.
Furthermore, Johnson is credited with winning the first points race in NASCAR's new Sprint Cup race car, the Gen-6. He drives the No. 48 Chevrolet.
"It's just awesome," Johnson said. "There's no other way to describe it, 400 starts, every one of those starts with Lowe's (team sponsor) and Hendrick Motorsports. To be the first to win in a Gen-6 car, and that car is a Chevy SS, just a very proud moment."
Johnson had finished no better than 27th in the previous six Daytona 500s.
"Plate racing has been tough on the 48, as we all know from the last few years," he noted. "I'm happy to get through it all. Just a strong racecar. I feel like the speed our car had in it allowed me to really have control of the race there late. I felt like I was sitting on something all day and was just ready to have some fun when it counted, and it did."
Johnson gave crew chief Chad Knaus his first victory in the Daytona 500. Knaus was suspended for the '06 race when NASCAR officials discovered an unapproved template modification to the rear window area of Johnson's car during post- qualifying inspection a week before the event. Knaus has been the crew chief for Johnson since his rookie season in 2002.
"As you guys know, I eat, sleep and breathe 48," Knaus said during the post- race press conference for the winning team. "Anytime that I'm taken away from that racecar, 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."
Johnson grabbed the lead from Brad Keselowski, the defending Sprint Cup champion, just before the caution flag waved for the sixth and final time with less than 10 laps remaining. He beat Earnhardt to the finish line by just 0.129 seconds. Earnhardt has finished in the runner-up spot in three of the last four Daytona 500s. He won this event in 2004.
"I'm really happy with the way the car ran all day," Earnhardt said. "You couldn't pass much, but when I was able to really see what my car could do, it was plenty capable of winning the race."
Earnhardt did not lead a lap in this race.
Danica Patrick became the highest-finishing female ever in the Daytona 500 with an eighth-place run. Janet Guthrie previously held the record in NASCAR's most prestigious race of the season when she finished 11th in 1980. Patrick was running in third on the last lap but lost momentum, as she was shuffled back in the pack.
Patrick made more history in the sport by becoming the first woman to lead a lap in the Daytona 500. One week ago, she set a record as the first female to win a pole position for a Sprint Cup race.
"I would imagine that pretty much anyone would kick themselves and say what could I have, should I have done to give myself that opportunity to win," said Patrick, who made her 11th career Sprint Cup start. "I think that's what I was feeling today, was uncertainty as to how I was going to accomplish that. There was plenty of time while you were cruising along."
After Patrick led the field of 43 cars to the green flag for the start, Jeff Gordon, who began second, pulled ahead of her and then ran in front for the first 31 laps. Patrick led her first of five laps in this race after a restart on lap 90.
Mark Martin finished third, while Keselowski settled for fourth. Ryan Newman was fifth.
Greg Biffle placed sixth and Regan Smith seventh. Michael McDowell and J.J. Yeley completed the top-10.
After crossing the start/finish line to complete the penultimate lap, Travis Kvapil made contact with the outside wall. NASCAR officials did not display the yellow flag on the final lap, which would have ended the race under caution.
Despite two big wrecks involving nine drivers in each one of them, the Daytona 500 settled nerves after Saturday's horrifying accident in the Nationwide Series race at this 2.5-mile racetrack.
At least 28 spectators were injured, two of them critically, when debris from Kyle Larson's car stuck them in the grandstands along the frontstretch. Larson, a rookie in Nationwide this year, flipped around and sailed into the catchfence in the tri-oval area after he was caught up in a 12-car crash. The front end of his vehicle ripped apart when it tore a gaping hole in the fence.
The Daytona 500 started at its scheduled time, as track personnel feverishly worked on the fence overnight to repair it.
On lap 34, Tony Stewart and Kevin Harvick had their chances of winning the Daytona 500 come to an abrupt end when they were involved in the first nine- car wreck. Kyle Busch hit Kasey Kahne and spun him around, which triggered the incident. Keselowski sustained slight damage to the front end of his Ford.
Stewart spent more than 80 laps in the garage area for repairs before returning to the track to finish the race in 41st. The three-time series champion has yet to win the Daytona 500 in 15 attempts.
"I wanted to win the Daytona 500," he said. "I don't know what started it, but we just got caught up in another wreck."
Harvick, the 2007 race winner, finished one spot behind Stewart in 42nd. He won the Sprint Cup preseason race at Daytona eight days ago and scored a victory in the first event of Thursday's twin-qualifiers.
"I let off a little bit to miss the wreck," Harvick said. "I don't know who was behind me, but it was just one of those deals."
Carl Edwards was involved in the second multi-car wreck of the day. Edwards had a miserable Speedweeks at Daytona, crashing in two separate practice sessions and in the qualifiers four days ago. He also wrecked in testing here last month.
"This is so frustrating," Edwards said. "It's not been fun."
Matt Kenseth appeared to be on the way to his second consecutive and third overall win in the Daytona 500 until he suffered engine failure with 50 laps remaining. Kenseth, who is in his first year with Joe Gibbs Racing after spending the past 13 seasons with Roush Fenway Racing, led a race-high 86 laps. He finished 37th.
"We were one of the cars to beat today, and I think we're going to be a force all year, so we have a lot to look forward to," Kenseth said.
His JGR teammate, Busch, suffered engine problems and retired from race the two laps after Kenseth called it a day. Busch placed 34th.