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February 24, 2013

Late surge gives Johnson Daytona 500 title No. 2

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – A big first for Danica Patrick, but an even bigger second for Jimmie Johnson.

Patrick made history up front at the Daytona 500 Sunday, only to see Johnson make a late push ahead of her and reclaim his spot at the top of his sport.

It was the second Daytona 500 victory for Johnson, a five-time NASCAR champion who first won “The Great American Race” in 2006.

“There is no other way to start the season than to win the Daytona 500. I’m a very lucky man to have won it twice,” said Johnson, who won in his 400th career start. “I’m very honored to be on that trophy with all the greats that have ever been in our sport.”

It comes a year after Johnson completed only one lap in the race because of a wreck that also collected Patrick, and just three months after Johnson lost his bid for a sixth Sprint Cup title to go two years without a championship after winning five straight.

Although he didn’t think he needed to send a message to his competitors – “I don’t think we went anywhere; anybody in the garage area, they’re wise to all that,” Johnson said – the win showed the No. 48 team is tired of coming up short after all those years of dominance.

“Definitely a great start for the team. When we were sitting discussing things before the season started, we felt good about the 500,” Johnson said, “but we’re really excited for everything after the 500. I think it’s going to be a very strong year for us.”

Patrick is hoping for her own success after a history-making race.

The first woman to win the pole, Patrick also became the first woman to lead the race. She ran inside the top 10 almost the entire race, kept pace with the field and never panicked on the track.

Her only mistakes were on pit road, where she got beat on the race back to the track, and on the final lap, when she was running third but got snookered by the veterans and faded to eighth. That’s going to stick with Patrick for some time.

“I would imagine pretty much anyone would be kicking themselves about what they coulda, shoulda have done to give themselves an opportunity to win,” she said. “I think that’s what I was feeling today, was uncertainty as to how I was going to accomplish that.”

There were several multicar crashes, but no one was hurt and none of them approached the magnitude of the wreck that injured more than two dozen fans in the grandstand at the end of the second-tier Nationwide Series race on the same track a day earlier. Daytona International Speedway workers were up until 2 a.m repairing the fence that was damaged in the accident, and track officials offered Sunday morning to move any fans who felt uneasy sitting too close to the track.

Several drivers said the accident and concern for the fans stuck with them overnight and into Sunday morning, and Johnson was quick to send his thoughts from Victory Lane.

“I just want to give a big shout-out to all the fans, and I also want to send my thoughts and prayers out to everybody that was injured in the grandstands,” Johnson said.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., whose father was killed in this race 12 years ago, was involved in Saturday’s accident but refocused and finished second to Johnson, his Hendrick Motorsports teammate.

“Me personally, I was just really waiting to get the news on how everybody was, how all the fans were overnight, just hoping that things were going to improve,” Earnhardt said, adding that he “wasn’t really ready to proceed until you had some confirmation that things were looking more positive.”

The race itself, the debut for NASCAR’s new Gen-6 car, was quite similar to all the other Cup races during Speedweeks in that the cars seemed to line up in a single-file parade along the top groove of the track. It made the 55th running of the Daytona 500 relatively uneventful.

When the race was on the line, Johnson took off.

The driver known as “Five-Time” raced past defending NASCAR champion Brad Keselowski on the final restart and pulled out to a sizable lead that nobody challenged over the final six laps.

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