Johnson was in class of his own
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Never have I seen a restrictor-plate race so clearly over, so long before the end. Not for 23 years had I seen a car so dominant at Daytona, and that one didn't win.
No driver since Dale Earnhardt in the 1990 Daytona 500 has been as utterly overpowering as Jimmie Johnson was in Saturday night's Coke Zero 400. But Earnhardt made a blink-of-an-eye mistake within a mile of the checkered flag.
Johnson was flawless to the final second. And he knew it, couldn't deny it, and so any false humility evaporated in Victory Lane.
"I don't know if I really made a bad move tonight," he said. "So I'm pretty proud of that."
And he should be.
Having won the Daytona 500 in February, Johnson is the first driver in 31 years to sweep both races here in a season. And he drove at least as sublimely as the four legendary names he joined at those heights.
"That's amazing," Johnson acknowledged. But it was the Allison name especially that humbled him.
"Growing up in Southern California, I watched Bobby Allison," Johnson said. "I always thought it was so great to watch Bobby and [his son, Davey,] race. I remember where I was the day Davey passed away [July 13, 1993, of injuries suffered in a helicopter crash].
"That's how much the Allison family meant to me. So to do anything Bobby's done has to be pretty special."
Johnson completed the job with 28 laps to go. In a plate race? Yessir. Absolutely. This one was over. You could see it. You were sure all hell was going to break loose all around him, several times in those last 28 laps, but you were just as sure that whatever happened was going to happen in Johnson's mirrors.
You knew. You were certain. I wrote the first sentence of this column with 27 laps to go, after watching Johnson rocket out, so easily, on that restart with 28 left. More restarts would come. There would be no problem.
Wrecks would happen behind him, even beside him, and Marcos Ambrose even got loose near him -- perhaps tapped him -- with three laps left, and Johnson's car barely wiggled.
On a restart with seven to go, the 48 was … just … gone. Here came Kahne and Ambrose, struggling to get something, anything, done, and Kahne pulled alongside for a moment … but you knew. It didn't matter.
Ambrose tried to jam between them, and the 48's adjustment was instantaneous. But Ambrose slammed into Kahne and sent him into a wild slide, into an inside wall, and there went the last of Johnson's real competition.
Even during the green-white-checkered, there were two more pileups, the last one the biggest one of the night as Johnson came to the finish line.
Tony Stewart, the defending race champion, wound up second. Harvick was third. But neither had anything for the 48.
Afterward, Stewart made the understatement of the evening: "Jimmie was just really, really good."
Johnson led 94 of the 160 laps.
"From a laps-led standpoint, this has to be the most dominant performance we've had on a plate track," Johnson said.
He really didn't need to qualify it with the laps-led part.
There had been no dominance like this at Daytona or Talladega since Earnhardt in the '90 Daytona 500. Earnhardt thoroughly controlled that race until, flying along with total confidence a mile from the end, he ran over obvious debris on the track in the third turn.
Earnhardt for the rest of his life would say, "It's not the Daytona 499." Johnson had to run only 400 on Saturday night, but it surely seemed another 100 wouldn't have mattered.
That makes Johnson's status for the season about the same as Saturday night: utterly overpowering.