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Published September 12, 2015
Jimmie Johnson went two years without a title and suddenly became an afterthought at the Daytona 500.
All the attention went to Danica Patrick and a handful of other drivers.
Not that it mattered Sunday, because look who pulled into Victory Lane.
Five-time is back. Not that he ever went away.
Johnson won his second Daytona 500 on Sunday, a year after he completed just one lap in the race and three months after falling short in his bid for a sixth Sprint Cup title. That so-called drought had made him something of a no-name during Speedweeks.
"In my mind, I didn't feel like I was under the radar," he said. "I felt like we were working hard to put the best product on the track. I guess I was quiet in the overall spectrum of things from the media side. I think people in the garage, people knew we were sitting on a lot of speed and had a very good race car."
But in winning the biggest race of the year, the No. 48 team wasn't sending a message to the competitors.
"I don't think we went anywhere; anybody in the garage area, they're wise to all that," Johnson said.
Johnson's win came on the same day that Patrick, who became the first woman in history to start a Sprint Cup race from the pole, again made history as the first woman to lead laps in the Daytona 500.
She ran inside the top 10 almost the entire race, kept pace with the field and never panicked on the track.
Her only mistakes were on pit road, where she got beat on the race back to the track, and on the final lap, when she was running third but got snookered by the veterans and faded to eighth. That's going to stick with Patrick for some time.
"I would imagine pretty much anyone would be kicking themselves about what they coulda, shoulda have done to give themselves an opportunity to win," she said. "I think that's what I was feeling today, was uncertainty as to how I was going to accomplish that."
There were several multicar crashes, but no one was hurt and none of them approached the magnitude of the wreck that injured more than two dozen fans in the grandstand at the end of the second-tier Nationwide Series race on the same track a day earlier. Daytona International Speedway workers were up until 2 a.m repairing the fence that was damaged in the accident, and track officials offered Sunday morning to move any fans who felt uneasy sitting close to the track.
Several drivers said the accident and concern for the fans stuck with them overnight and into Sunday morning, and Johnson was quick to send his thoughts from Victory Lane.
"I just want to give a big shout-out to all the fans, and I also want to send my thoughts and prayers out to everybody that was injured in the grandstands," Johnson said.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., whose father was killed in this race 12 years ago, was involved in Saturday's accident but refocused and finished second to Johnson, his Hendrick Motorsports teammate.
"Me personally, I was just really waiting to get the news on how everybody was, how all the fans were overnight, just hoping that things were going to improve," Earnhardt said, adding that he "wasn't really ready to proceed until you had some confirmation that things were looking more positive."
The race itself, the debut for NASCAR's new Gen-6 car, was quite similar to all the other Cup races during Speedweeks in that the cars seemed to line up in a single-file parade along the top groove of the track. It made the 55th running of the Daytona 500 relatively uneventful.
When the race was on the line, Johnson took off.
The driver known as "Five-time" raced past defending NASCAR champion Brad Keselowski on the final restart and pulled out to a sizeable lead that nobody challenged over the final six laps.
Johnson and Keselowski went down to the wire last season in their race for the Sprint Cup title, with Johnson faltering in the final two races as Keselowski won his first Cup championship.
Although it was a bit of an upset that stuck with Johnson into the offseason, it gave him no extra motivation when he found himself racing with Keselowski late Sunday for the Daytona 500.
"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. It could have been anybody."
Once Johnson cleared Keselowski on the last restart he had a breakaway lead with Greg Biffle and Patrick behind him. But as the field closed in on the checkered flag, Earnhardt finally made his move, just too late and too far behind to get close enough to the lead.
Earnhardt wound up second for the third time in the last four years. But with all the crashes the Hendrick cars have endured in restrictor-plate races — teammate Kasey Kahne was in the first accident Sunday — team owner Rick Hendrick was just fine with the finish.
"We have a hard time finishing these races. Boy, to run 1-2, man, what a day," Hendrick said. Jeff Gordon, who was a contender early, faded late to 20th.
And Johnson considered himself lucky to be the one holding the trophy at the end.
"Man, it's like playing the lottery; everybody's got a ticket," he said. "I've struck out a lot at these tracks, left with torn-up race cars. Today we had a clean day."
Mark Martin was third in a Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota. Keselowski, who overcame two accidents earlier in the race, wound up fourth in Penske Racing's new Ford. Ryan Newman was fifth in a Chevy for Stewart-Haas Racing and was followed by Roush-Fenway Racing's Greg Biffle, who was second on the last lap but was shuffled back with Patrick to finish sixth.
Regan Smith was seventh for Phoenix Racing, while Patrick, Michael McDowell and JJ Yeley rounded out the top 10.
Patrick was clearly disappointed with her finish. When the race was on the line, she was schooled by Earnhardt, who made his last move and blocked any chance she had.
Still, Patrick became the first woman in history to lead laps in the 500 when she passed Michael Waltrip on a restart on Lap 90. She stayed on the point for two laps, then was shuffled back to third. She ended up leading five laps, another groundbreaking moment for Patrick, who as a rookie in 2005 became the first woman to lead the Indianapolis 500 and now is the 13th driver to lead laps in both the Daytona 500 and the Indy 500.
"Dale did a nice job and showed what happens when you plan it out, you drop back and get that momentum. You are able to go to the front," Patrick said. "I think he taught me something. I'm sure I'll watch the race and there will be other scenarios I see that can teach me, too."
Earnhardt was impressed, nonetheless.
"She's going to make a lot of history all year long. It's going to be a lot of fun to watch her progress," he said. "Every time I've seen her in a pretty hectic situation, she always really remained calm. She's got a great level head. She's a racer. She knows what's coming. She's smart about her decisions. She knew what to do today as far as track position and not taking risks. I enjoy racing with her."
Johnson, one of three heavyweight drivers who took their young daughters to meet Patrick — "the girl in the bright green car" — after she won the pole in qualifications, tipped his cap, too.
"I didn't think about it being Danica in the car," Johnson said. "It was just another car on the track that was fast. That's a credit to her and the job she's doing."
The field was weakened by an early nine-car accident that knocked out race favorite Kevin Harvick and sentimental favorite Tony Stewart.
Harvick had won two support races coming into the 500 to cement himself as the driver to beat, but the accident sent him home with a 42nd place finish.
Stewart, meanwhile, dropped to 0-for-15 in one of the few races the three-time NASCAR champion has never won.
"If I didn't tell you I was heartbroken and disappointed, I'd be lying to you," Stewart said.
That accident also took former winner Jamie McMurray, his Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Juan Pablo Montoya, and Kasey Kahne out of contention.
The next accident — involving nine cars — came 105 laps later and brought a thankful end to Speedweeks for Carl Edwards. He was caught in his fifth accident since testing last month, and this wreck collected six other Ford drivers.
The field suddenly had six Toyota drivers at the front as Joe Gibbs Racing and Michael Waltrip Racing drivers took control of the race. But JGR's day blew up — literally — when the team was running 1-2-3 with Matt Kenseth, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch setting the pace.
Kenseth, who led a race-high 86 laps, went to pit road first with an engine problem, and Busch was right behind him with a blown engine. Busch was already in street clothes watching as Hamlin led the field.
"It's a little devastating when you are running 1-2-3 like that," Busch said.
Hamlin's shot disappeared when he found himself in the wrong lane on the final restart. He tried to hook up with Keselowski to get them back to Johnson, but blamed former teammate Joey Logano for ruining the momentum of the bottom lane.
Hamlin offered a backhanded apology to Keselowski on Twitter, posting that he couldn't get close enough because "your genius teammate was too busy messing up the inside line 1 move at a time."