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Jimmie Johnson holds off Dale Earnhardt Jr. to win Daytona 500

- jutter@charlotteobserver.com
Sunday, Feb. 24, 2013

Jimmie Johnson is no stranger to NASCAR success or Victory Lane in the Daytona 500.

Pardon his crew chief, Chad Knaus, if it felt like the first time.

Well, that’s because it was for him.

Johnson’s second Daytona 500 victory, secured by holding off Hendrick Motorsports teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. on the final lap, was the first for Knaus, who was serving a NASCAR-issued suspension when Johnson first won the “Great American Race,” in 2006.

The driver-crew chief duo has won five Sprint Cup Series championships and countless races together, but they still managed to share in another first on Sunday.

“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 No. 48 car,” Knaus said.

“Was I here? No. Was I here in spirit? Most definitely. I couldn’t have been prouder of the group of guys we had there. To finally be able to come down here and win and be a part of this is definitely a huge dream come true.”

It would be difficult to call Johnson, a 61-time winner in the Cup series, and unlikely candidate for Sunday’s victory, but he did seem to fly under the radar for most of Speedweeks.

Even in the race Sunday, last year’s winner, Matt Kenseth, appeared on track to repeat his victory while leading 86 of the first 149 laps.

When an early wreck sidelined favorites Kevin Harvick and Tony Stewart, and Kenseth was forced to the garage with engine problems, the door was opened for Johnson.

He led a freight train of cars on the bottom lane – which had been virtually abandoned much of the race – to finally catch then-leader Brad Keselowski on Lap 186.

“Pack racing is a little different. You can’t ride and wait for things to happen. You have to race all day long and fight for track position,” said Johnson, who became the 10th driver in NASCAR history to win multiple Daytona 500s.

“I had a lot of confidence in the final few laps leading the train.”

A late caution for debris on the track bunched the field up one more time and Johnson led the way on the restart with six laps remaining.

He remained in good position for the victory and wasn’t seriously challenged until the final lap when Earnhardt and Mark Martin drafted together in an attempt to run Johnson down.

He would not be denied.

“I’m just enjoying this moment. This is a one-of-a-kind race. In the rush that follows, the notoriety that follows, it’s great for all of us,” Johnson said. “It’s just time to sit back and enjoy.

“When we pull into the gates at Phoenix next weekend, it’s a totally different game as we all know. We’ll enjoy this rush.

“If there’s some down points through the year, we’ll look back on this race and smile again.”

Martin finished third, Keselowski ended up fourth and Ryan Newman was fifth.

Danica Patrick, who became the first woman to win a pole in the Cup series, ran in the top-10 most of the race and ended up eighth.

Keselowski’s role in the outcome was surprising considering he was one of the cars involved in the Lap 34 wreck. His No. 2 Penske Racing team patched him up and he remained competitive the rest of the race.

“We weren’t strong enough with the damage to our car to do anything once Jimmie got out front,” Keselowski said.

“You saw all day that the high lane was drastically faster than the lower lanes and that showed up there on the last restart and he was able to drive away.”

Johnson and Keselowski battled down to the wire last season for the Cup championship, with Keselowski coming away with his first title.

Sunday’s race was the first points-paying race in the Cup series for the new 2013 model cars which feature much greater manufacturer identity. NASCAR also hopes the cars are the key to a better product on the track as well.

Sunday’s race likely still leaves that latter up for debate, but most drivers seemed pleased with what has transpired thus far.

“It was a great show,” Earnhardt said. “A couple adjustments with this car; the track is going to age a little bit more; and the tire will change as the track ages.

“It’s going to turn into an even better race.”

Utter: 704-358-5113; Twitter: @jim_utter
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