Jimmie Johnson wins Daytona 500, Earnhardt Jr. finishes second
(CNN) — Racing at the Daytona International Speedway can be like playing the lottery against 42 other drivers who all have a ticket, all seem to have an equal shot at winning.
While luck can certainly help, so does experience, something Jimmie Johnson put to use as the laps wound down in NASCAR’s season-opening and most prestigious race of the season.
Johnson won the Daytona 500 on Sunday, edging out Dale Earnhardt Jr., who finished second for the third time in four years.
Johnson, who won the race for the second time, led 17 laps on the track where speeds are limited by a restrictor plate. The result is close racing, with cars separated by hundredths of a second.
It’s a race that often involves a big wreck near the end, so Sunday drivers were content to line up one by- ne and go around and a round and around for the first 180 laps. Then Johnson took over.
“I had a lot of confidence leading the train,” Johnson said of being the first car in line as drivers raced around the 2 1/2-mile track. “I knew I had a fast car.”
His crew chief, Chad Knaus said that despite the uncertainty of racing this season with the latest generation of NASCAR cars — which are lighter and sleeker — they knew for weeks what they wanted to do.
“Jimmie did a great job of following that plan,” said Knaus, who sat out the team’s 2006 Daytona 500 win because of a suspension.
Danica Patrick, the first woman to win the pole position at the Daytona 500, led three times, including five laps under green — also becoming the first woman to lead a lap at the race not under a yellow flag caution. She finished eighth, the highest finish ever for a female driver at the race.
“At the end of the day, it was a solid day,” she said. “We stayed basically in the top 10 all day, so it was nice.”
Crew chief Tony Gibson beamed after the race.
“She did great under pressure,” he said.
Earnhardt did his best to earn his second win in the “Great American Race,” but his last-lap charge came up short. With just over a mile to go, Earhardt, followed by veteran driver Mark Martin, went low on the track. With Martin’s car pushing Earnhardt’s the two pushed into contention, but Johnson maneuvered in front of his teammate Earnhardt.
The 54-year-old Martin crossed the finish line third.
“We just kinda ran out of steam out of (turn) four,” Earnhardt said. “We made a good move, but there just was not enough race track.”
Some of the fans who were injured by flying debris Saturday during a crash late in the Nationwide Series Drive4COPD 300 were to attend the Daytona 500, speedway president Joie Chitwood said Sunday morning.
At least 28 fans were injured when more than a dozen cars piled up in the final curve of Saturday’s race. Some of the debris went over a 22-foot-high fence that was built in 2010, and some of it went through holes as the fence was mangled when a car slammed into it and bounced back onto the track.
Saturday’s wreck occurred when several closely packed cars were jostling for position at top speeds of about 175 mph. They got tangled up, setting off a dangerous chain reaction that ensnared several vehicles.
Driver Kyle Larson’s vehicle ended up flying into a fence that separates the track from spectators. The car broke into pieces, including tires and a fiery engine.
Larson walked away from the crash, even after the front part of his No. 32 car was gone. He and the other nine drivers involved told reporters that they were checked at a medical tent on the Daytona infield and released.