Jimmie Johnson at the line, just ahead of Tony Stewart...while all hell breaks loose just behind them (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla.
Jimmie Johnson has always had a little rough edge to him at Daytona and Talladega. Early on he even had to apologize for being over energetic at times.
But he wasn't apologizing here Saturday night, after crushing his rivals, and even knocking a couple out of his way, en route to a decisive victory in the Coke 400, the event that marks the halfway point of the season...a season that has largely been a Johnson title charge so far.
Even soon-to-be teammates Tony Stewart and Kevin Harvick couldn't team up and make a run at Johnson in the closing laps. The two were about the only men still standing by that point in the night of carnage.
Marcos Ambrose and Kasey Kahne did try some last ditch dramatics, but Johnson roughly took care of them.
At least 21 drivers were involved in major crashes, most in the last hour. Until the crashing became almost epidemic, these 43 men had put on a good show, after several weeks of lackluster action on the stock car tour.
No, it wasn't as much fun to watch as Friday night's thrilling Nationwide race, with its fascinating two-car drafting packs. NASCAR has banned the two-car drafts from the Cup series, for some reason, with a gimcracked set of rules that have at times had drivers more concerned about watching their temperature gauges than other drivers.
And Johnson's dominance was clear. He'd qualified an impressive eighth on a pure race setup Friday. And he used his mirror to block rivals all night, thus keeping himself in good air, leading 250 of the 400 miles.
As fast as these 2013s are, good air is even more important.
Johnson's performance here sets him up as a big favorite at Indianapolis later this month, where high-speed (212 mph) aerodynamics and clean air are even more important. Johnson won the Brickyard 400 last summer in a rout.
It starting to look like a Jimmie Johnson juggernaut forming.
It will take more than a bucket of ice to cool off crew chief Chad Knaus and Jimmie Johnson (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
After grumbling about getting snookered on recent restarts at Dover and Kentucky, which cost him two wins, Johnson wasn't going to let anyone trick him this time around. On nearly every restart he played it perfectly.
And he confounded and confused challengers by using the aerodynamics of the lead to great advantage.
Johnson won the season opener here, he ran fifth at Talladega in May, and now he's the first man since Bobby Allison in 1982 to sweep Daytona.
Jimmie Johnson made a statement here. In fact he made several statements.
While all about him were crashing and crashing and crashing, Johnson stayed ahead of most of the chaos.
In the final moments, when Marcos Ambrose made a play for the lead, and with Kasey Kahne, Johnson's teammate, side-by-side with the five-time champ heading into turn three....well, you watch the replays and decide. But it sure looks like Johnson slowed to block Ambrose on the high side, and when Ambrose jumped toward the inside, Johnson moved down to block him again -- and wound up driving Ambrose into Kahne, taking both out of contention.
Ambrose, as is his style, declined to get upset about it. After all, he's a pretty rough driver too at times.
Johnson himself insisted he didn't make any mistakes all night, and said he didn't really see what all happened over on the backstretch.
This was pretty much the way it was all Saturday night: Jimmie Johnson on the point, everyone scrambling behind him (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
"Throughout the race I was able to move up in front of whatever lane was advancing," Johnson said, referring to his mirror driving. "And I could stall them out and maintain position. I did it 30 or 40 times through the course of the race.
"Marcos had a huge run coming, and I felt I needed to defend it. So I moved up to defend it. But he didn't push me off like I expected. And Kasey rolled up."
For a moment it appeared Johnson had just given the race away, either to Kahne or Ambrose.
Johnson blocked Ambrose again, forcing Ambrose into Kahne, taking both out.
As he did at Pocono, after the Dover controversy, Johnson took care of business.
"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 says.
"Anything this 48 team does, we have a magnifying glass on us, and everybody talks about it, and everybody wants to take shots at it, wants to praise it, whatever it is, good or bad.
"People pay attention to it. But we don't pay attention.
" It's really about what we do inside the team.
"Last weekend (at Kentucky) didn't turn out. But every team in the garage 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 track.
"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."
One of the two last lap crashes: no wonder it took NASCAR a while to figure out how to score the finish. Kyle Busch (18) and Danica Patrick (10) were just two of nearly dozen drivers involved. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
But Johnson wasn't the only story line of the night. This sport, which has had precious few good story lines lately, had a bunch here.
-- Denny Hamlin, for one. Crashed not once but twice, and hard...into a frontstretch wall not protected by the soft-wall Safer barrier.
Are NASCAR officials and track executives becoming too lackadaisical about safety?
Has California Speedway added soft-walls to where Hamlin crashed so hard in the spring?
Has Talladega Superspeedway added soft-walls to the cross-over gate where Eric McClure crashed so hard?
Has Charlotte Motor Speedway added soft-walls to the frontstretch wall where Jeff Gordon crashed so hard?
Will Daytona add soft-walls to the frontstretch where Hamlin crashed?
NASCAR executives have yet to order baseline testing of drivers, to guard against concussive incidents like the ones that took Dale Earnhardt Jr. out of last fall's championship chase. Perhaps there should be questions raised now about all the hard hits Hamlin has taken this season.
Denny Hamlin nose-first into the outside frontstretch wall (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Then AJ Allmendinger (pink car) slams hard into Denny Hamlin's driver's door (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
-- Kyle Busch. Despite a damaged right-front fender, Busch stayed in the battle right up till the end....when he wound up in one of those two massive last lap crashes.
-- NASCAR declined to throw a late yellow for the Carl Edwards backstretch melee, since it was behind the leaders. That allowed Stewart and Harvick a shot at Johnson, though neither could do anything with him. Then moments later, as Johnson led the pack to the finish line, another massive pileup occurred right behind the lead trio.
-- Matt Kenseth, perhaps trying to play it too cautiously, never even got to the lead during the three-hour race, and got caught up in one of the late crashes.
The upshot of all that is that Johnson leaves town for next weekend's tour stop in Loudon, N.H., with a very comfortable 49-point lead. That's enough that he could sit out a race and still be atop the standings.
Kenseth, who appears to be the only major challenger to Johnson in the looming title chase, now has four DNFs. Johnson has zero.
Jimmie Johnson in victory lane. Get used to it. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)