Jimmie Johnson, snapping a five-year slump in the Daytona 500 (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla.
Danica Patrick drove the race of her career here Sunday, leading laps, running up front all day, and -- surprise! -- she was right smack in the battle for the victory down the stretch of the biggest stock car race of the all.
Yes, she lived up to all the pre-race hype.
Jimmie Johnson launched his bid for a sixth NASCAR championship by winning the Daytona 500 for the second time, and ending a five-year slump in this event.
Patrick, running third at the white flag, got shuffled to eighth at the finish line. But her persistence and unflappable work at the wheel was remarkable to watch. She did have a few moments on pit road, but only one bad bobble on the track.
Unfortunately that's about all to say about this lead-off Sprint Cup tour event. It was really downright boring most of the three hours. And it followed a pair of equally boring 150s Thursday....sandwiching a red-hot Truck tour event Friday night and a Nationwide sizzler Saturday. The contrast in action in the three major NASCAR series was striking, and may raise more questions about whether these new 2013 Cup cars are really ready for prime time.
The 2013s have been hotly promoted by NASCAR in the weeks leading up to SpeedWeeks, and executives do not want this model tainted by criticism such as marred the first days of the last new stocker, the unliked car-of-tomorrow.
So there has been unabashed praise from virtually every part of the garage about how great these new cars are and how much excitement they will put into this sport.
However here during the debut events the only real excitement was in the crashing. The cars appear to have issues when trying to race side by side.
The first of Sunday's two major crashes took out half a dozen potential winners, including Tony Stewart, Kevin Harvick and Kasey Kahne (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
And even the finish, usually dramatic here, even on a bad day, was rather weak, from a purely entertainment point of view.
Because the low line, again, never came in for drivers. Thus 'lane choice' for the final restart was the key to victory in a generally lackluster, single-file day at the track. "The way the side-draft works with this car, everybody wants to run the high lane, and you can really choke down the bottom lane," Johnson said.
Brad Keselowski, on a comeback afternoon following an early accident, appeared the man to beat down the stretch, holding off Johnson despite a banged up car.
Then a late yellow for a piece of aluminum debris, with only nine laps to go in the 200-lapper, while Keselowski was battling Johnson in a tight duel, led to the last restart with six to go.
Johnson got the nod as leader at the moment that yellow officially came out, apparently based on the embedded scoring loops. That gave him lane choice for the final green, and he took the high line, which was the preferred line through all SpeedWeeks for some odd reason.
Keselowski was thus stuck in the slower lane and even with pushing help he faded toward the back.
That left Johnson to fend off Greg Biffle and Patrick. Virtually no one this SpeedWeeks has been able to make an inside pass, and neither Biffle nor Patrick appeared willing to try to dive low the final lap.
Jimmie Johnson at the line. But what happened to Greg Biffle and Danica Patrick this last lap? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Then just as the leaders took the white for the last lap, David Reutimann hit the wall behind them, triggering a scramble in the pack. And Ryan Newman wasn't the only one here who figured NASCAR would throw the yellow.
However NASCAR didn't throw a yellow, letting Biffle, Patrick and the rest have a final shot at Johnson if they wanted to try it. No one tried anything, though.
The rest of the day is easily summed up:
-- Nobody passed. It was single-file all day...perhaps partly the result of NASCAR cutting rear downforce on these cars considerably over last year's cars (450 pounds less downforce on the rear), by cutting the rear spoiler drastically and by adding a under-body pan at the rear.
-- Two big crashes took out several top drivers, including Carl Edwards for an amazing fifth time here. The first crash occurred just 34 laps in, in an accordion wreck, taking out Kasey Kahne, Tony Stewart, Kevin Harvick, Juan Pablo Montoya, Jamie McMurray and Kurt Busch. Keselowski was involved, but his crew managed to get him repaired and back in the hunt. The second crash involved Trevor Bayne, Keselowski and Edwards.
--- Two of Joe Gibbs' three drivers fell out with mechanical problems while leading, Matt Kenseth (transmission) and Kyle Busch (engine). (Denny Hamlin finished 14th.) Those woes quickly revived the specter of reliability issues that plagued the group last season. At one point Toyota held the top six spots in the race. Ironically perhaps Mark Martin wound up the highest finishing Toyota driver...and he was downright giddy about that.
Ooooh, no, not again. Carl Edwards (99) crashed out for the fifth time in Sunday's 500 (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Martin, who drives a part-time schedule, said Saturday's crash weighed on his mind during this race.
"I was sick all night after that crash Saturday....and I was happy today we could have a good race without a big accident," Martin said. "There was plenty of opportunity at the end, though.
"And they'll probably have one here in July....but I'm going to be home on the couch for that one."
Patrick, whose 2012 season was pretty miserable, runs well at Daytona, so how well she may fare in the coming weeks at Phoenix and Las Vegas is up for debate.
But here Sunday she was impressive all day. She started from the pole, chose the outside line, and quickly tucked in behind fellow Chevy driver Jeff Gordon. And she was clearly in contention all afternoon. And she wasn't thinking about just a good finish either:
"There was plenty of time while we were cruising along single-file to think...and I kept thinking 'How can I do this?'" she said.
She said she couldn't figure out a good endgame. "Maybe I wasn't thinking creative enough."
But then nobody else had a real good endgame either.
Jimmie Johnson gets a victory lane handshake from teammate Dale Earnhard Jr. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)