Sunday, July 7, 2013

Jimmie Johnson sweeps Daytona with his victory in the Coke Zero 400

Credit: Scott Halleran/Getty Images
Jimmie Johnson decisively won the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway Saturday night, leading 64 of 161 laps. He took the lead under the fourth caution and withstood two more cautions and two more restarts to score his fourth victory of the season and the 64th of his career.

Johnson added to his list of superlatives by becoming the first driver to sweep both Daytona races in the same season since Bobby Allison did it in 1982.

When told about that milestone, Johnson said, "Gosh, growing up in Southern California and watching Bobby Allison, and I remember where I was the day Davey passed away. That's how much the Allison family meant to me. I always thought it was so great to watch Bobby and Davey race, and to do anything Bobby has done is pretty special."

Second-place finisher Tony Stewart seemed a bit less than impressed with the feat, though. When asked for a comment about how impressive it was, Stewart said, "These things are such a crap shoot that I guess it is impressive. All 43 guys have a shot at winning the race."

Kevin Harvick settled for third and wasn't particularly impressed with Johnson's win either. He was asked if anyone had anything for Johnson once he got in clean air.

 "Yeah, I think we could have done the same thing in clean air," Harvick said. "I think the front car is in a lot better control."

Clint Bowyer and Michael Waltrip rounded out the top five, with positions six through 10 filled by Kurt Busch, Jamie McMurray, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Casey Mears and Ryan Newman. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in 11th was the top-finishing Sunoco Rookie of the Year candidate.

The race featured 18 lead changes among 11 drivers, but only Johnson, Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin led more than 10 laps.

Johnson and the No. 48 team's win was not without controversy.

With six laps to go, he was leading, teammate Kasey Kahne behind him pushing to what seemed an inevitable Hendrick 1-2 finish. Marcos Ambrose got a run on the outside, powered by Clint Bowyer, who was being pushed by McMurray. As Ambrose pulled even with Kahne on the backstretch, Johnson inexplicably pulled over in front of him, leaving his teammate on the bottom line with Harvick and Stewart behind him.

With five to go Ambrose tried to dive for the middle lane. Johnson moved to block him, Ambrose swerved to keep from hitting Johnson and instead side-slammed Kasey Kahne, sending him careening across the paved area on the back side of Lake Lloyd where he bounced off the inside wall. Kahne's momentum carried the No. 5 into the grass, and the caution laps for cleanup prompted the green-white-checkered finish.

Kahne seemed resigned to his fate.

"Jimmie (Johnson) moved up to block the outside row coming so I kind of at that point had the lead," Kahne explained. "I had followed Jimmie a lot throughout the race. I felt really good with our Hendrickcars.com Chevrolet. Next thing I know I got slammed and shot left. It was the end of our night. It’s kind of how these races go. You don’t have a lot of control over some of the things that happen here."

Credit: Jared C. Tilton/NASCAR via Getty Images
Nowhere was that principle more clear than on the final lap when Casey Mears pinballed off of Carl Edwards, who ended up facing the opposite direction across the front of Scott Speed. Bobby Labonte, Joe Nemechek, Landon Cassill and Ambrose couldn't avoid contact, but the wreck didn't bring out the caution. As Johnson sped to the finish line, Danica Patrick, who was following Dale Earnhardt Jr. to the front, came down slightly on David Gilliland and got turned in front of him, taking out a number of other cars including her teammate Ryan Newman, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Kyle Busch.

Johnson drove to the flag stand and did his signature burnout while the younger Busch brother exited his wrecked car and started walking back to the garage, reminiscent of Dale Jarrett in 2002.

Prior to those melees, the race slowed four times for caution, one of which turned into a red flag.

Laps 24-28: the engine of No. 27 of Paul Menard broke, bursting into flames and prompting cleanup of fluid on the track.
Laps 71-74: the No. 22 of Joey Logano blew a tire sending him into the outside well. On the way back to the pits, a brake rotor broke, strewing debris over the track and sending Logano to the garage.
Laps 99-104: Contact between Denny Hamlin turned Martin Truex sent Truex across the nose of Juan Pablo Montoya. Kyle Busch couldn't slow in time to keep from hitting the rear of the No. 11, turning him, too.
Laps 150-153, including an 8:53 red flag: Denny Hamlin swerved below the yellow line and back up in front of Brad Keselowski, straight up into the outside wall and into the path of Matt Kenseth, sending Kenseth across the front of Jeff Gordon and into David Reutimann. AJ Allmendinger couldn't avoid Hamlin and slammed into the left rear of the FedEx car, lifting it off the track as it spun. Dave Blaney hit Allmendinger and got a piece of Hamlin as the No. 11 careened back across the track.

See the full finishing order here.

Johnson remains in the Chase points lead, 48 points ahead of Bowyer in second. Edwards, Harvick and Earnhardt Jr. are third through fifth. Kenseth with his four wins sits sixth, Kyle Busch with his two wins is seventh, Greg Biffle has a win and is eighth, Kurt Busch is ninth, and Tony Stewart leapfrogged to tenth place. He has a win, as do 11th-place Truex Jr. and 12th-place Kahne.
See the full points standings here.

Only one race winner is outside the top twelve in points (David Ragan, 28th), so the next eight races are critical for any driver in the top 12 looking to improve his position at the beginning of the Chase, or for any driver hoping to make the Chase.

Johnson has four wins now; only an unprecedented run of bad finishes would keep him from being in the Chase now. The same is true of Kenseth and his four victories. With the points reset after Richmond, those wins are the only advantage they'll have. Johnson's not worried about that yet though.

"It's still a little early and we're obviously trying to get every point we can to carry into the Chase with bonus points," Johnson said. "But we have a little time before we focus in on that feeling."

He's also not concerned about "the one that got away."

"We're very focused on what we need to do as a team. We don't let outside things distract us, and I think that's the biggest key," Johnson explained. "It's really about what we do inside the 48 team. Last weekend didn't turn out. Every race team in the garage area leaves the track with could have, would have, should haves, and we've had a couple of those, but we don't let it linger, we don't let it last. We dig in and we go to work and we come back to the racetrack and do the best we can.  There's more in that than there is us having a statement or something to prove because something got away from us the week before. It's more about the team, and we know what we're capable of when we go out and do our jobs."

Tune in next Sunday, July 14, when the series heads back to New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

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