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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Amazing, how a five-time champion in his 400th Cup start could fly so far under the radar, coming into the Daytona 500 and for most of the race.
And then at last, with 16 laps to go Sunday, Jimmie Johnson emerged. With 10 to go, he seized control and wouldn't let go, even after the race's final caution bunched up the field for a final six-lap sprint, and even after Dale Earnhardt Jr. mounted one of his classic last-lap onslaughts.
Once the green flag flew for the last time, "I had a lot of confidence those final few laps, leading the train," Johnson said. "I knew just how fast this car was."
The train included Danica Patrick, far and away the star of Speedweeks, who was running third to Johnson and Greg Biffle as they took the white flag.
Patrick was the main one who'd left Johnson under the radar all week. Arriving at Daytona on Valentine's Day amidst much ado about her new boyfriend, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Patrick accelerated her stardom by winning the pole last Sunday.
Then in the 500, she kept the limelight for a good long while, as she ran in the top 10 all afternoon, the top five for much of it, led three times for five laps under green and threatened to win right into the final lap, when she got caught in a last-lap scramble. She wound up eighth.
"I guess I was quiet," Johnson said of the week, "in the overall spectrum of things on the media side. But inside the garage, I think people knew we were sitting on a lot of speed and had a very good race car."
Since his only other Daytona 500 win, in 2006, Johnson's own record in this race may have squelched the attention on him. From 2007 until Sunday, his finishes in the 500 were 39th, 27th, 31st, 35th, 27th and a 42nd, the latter his place last year after getting crashed out on the second lap.
Much more attention this time went to Kevin Harvick, who won the Sprint Unlimited and one of the Duel 150-mile races, Kyle Busch, who won the other Duel, and Johnson teammate and mentor Jeff Gordon, who started on the front row alongside Patrick.
|Jimmie Johnson didn't look like the class of the field all day, but he certainly did when it counted.|
Sunday, Harvick was caught in an early wreck, Busch fell out with a blown engine and Gordon struggled most of the afternoon with overheating problems.
For the final six-lap sprint under green, the drama meter soared on a race that had been forecast as dull because NASCAR's new "Gen-6" car hadn't shown itself to be conducive to passing in preliminary events during the week.
Johnson and Brad Keselowski, who'd made a gutsy comeback in a patched-up car damaged in an earlier wreck, restarted side by side. But at the green, Johnson pulled away easily.
Patrick, following Johnson and Biffle on the high side, ran up to third and stayed there until the final lap. Then Earnhardt, pushed by Mark Martin, blasted through in the low lane.
"Once we came to Turn 4," Earnhardt said, "we kind of ran out of steam -- didn't have enough to get a run on Jimmie."
The biggest question about Patrick, as she continued to hang with the leaders throughout the race, was how she would manage when it came to her area of least experience, scrambling with the draft-savvy veterans in the inevitable dogfight at the end.
Ultimately, she admitted, she didn't have a plan for such a thing.
Yes, she was frustrated at falling from third to eighth on the last lap: "I would imagine that pretty much anyone would kick themselves and say what I could have, should have done to give myself an opportunity to win," she said.
"I was thinking in the car, 'How am I going to do this?' I didn't know what to do, exactly. Maybe that's just my inexperience."
Running up front for so long may have hurt her at the finish, she figured.
"I suppose that's the only downside to running in that front group all day, is that I never got any practice passing. I never tried, really, anything."
Racing near her, Johnson saw that "she was really comfortable in the car. She held a great wheel, was smooth, took advantage of runs when she had them."
There were 28 lead changes among 14 drivers Sunday -- OK but not great for a Daytona 500, and Johnson wouldn't blame the Gen-6 car so much as drivers' caution.
"These cars are sensitive to side drafting, and I think that is some of what we saw," Johnson said of times when a car would pull alongside the leader and then stall.
But largely, the riding around Sunday was a function of drivers growing weary of all the massive pileups, the "big ones," in restrictor-plate races.
"When we're running single file, we're just trying to get to the finish," Johnson said. "We've all crashed so many times, and torn up so much stuff. And a lot of that falls on the drivers' shoulders.
"I feel for NASCAR. They're trying to create a competitive car. They want us side by side. The fans want us side by side."
But, he added, "I believe a lot of the competitors just wanted to get that last pit stop on and race for it instead of tearing up their equipment."
In winning on his 400th start, Johnson joined Lee Petty, Richard Petty, David Pearson, Dale Earnhardt and Dave Marcis.
And the five-time champion is blatantly back on the radar.