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Winner Johnson, History-Maker Patrick Share Spotlight at Daytona 500

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – It’s only fitting that in NASCAR’s biggest race, the main players of this high-speed drama are “Masters of the Brickyard.”

These are drivers who have proven their worth at NASCAR’s biggest stage, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. So as the 55th Daytona 500 unfolded Sunday, the dash for victory was played out by three of the best at the Brickyard.

Five-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson knows how to get to Victory Lane at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway by winning the Brickyard 400 a record-tying four times in his career, including last July. By winning the Daytona 500 on Sunday for the second time in his career, he became the 10th driver to win NASCAR’s crown jewel more than once.

Although Dale Earnhardt Jr. never has won at Indianapolis, his popularity among the masses of race fans that come to IMS every year is legendary. Earnhardt finished second to his Hendrick Motorsports teammate by just .129 of a second for his third second-place finish in the last four Daytona 500s.

And then there is Danica Patrick, the first female driver ever to lead laps at the Indianapolis 500 and the highest-finishing female driver in Indy 500 history. She already earned history as the first female pole winner in Daytona 500 history Feb. 17 and added to it during the race Feb. 24.

Patrick drove superbly, hanging with the lead group of drivers throughout the race. She had her No. 10 Chevrolet in front three times for five laps to become the first female ever to lead the Daytona 500. Three-time Indianapolis 500 starter Janet Guthrie was the only previous female driver to lead a NASCAR Cup race, with five laps of caution in 1977 at Ontario Motor Speedway

Sprint Cup rookie Patrick was near the front during the last-lap dash for the checkered Sunday before finishing eighth, the best result ever by a woman in the Daytona 500. The previous best was 11th by Guthrie in 1980.

The Daytona 500 was not so kind to three other Brickyard legends.

Four-time Brickyard 400 winner and four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon led once for 31 laps but finished 20th. Two-time Brickyard 400 winner and three-time Cup champion Tony Stewart was involved in an early crash and finished 41st out of 43 cars. It was the same crash that took out 2003 Brickyard 400 winner Kevin Harvick, one of the favorites to win this year’s Daytona 500.

This was a day when Johnson would not be denied as he scored his 61st career Cup victory in his 400th career Cup start. He is the sixth driver to win a race in his 400th start joining NASCAR legends Lee Petty, Richard Petty, David Pearson and Dale Earnhardt and the not-so-legendary Dave Marcis.

“I had no clue about that,” Johnson said after collecting $1,525,275 for the victory. “Just to hear those names and my name in that sentence is pretty awesome. The history side is hard for me because, one, I don't know these stats. I’m happy to hear about them, though. I'm still in the sport competing, not in that mental space to reflect back all that much.

“I am so proud to be in that same category with those guys, feel I have a lot of years left. I certainly hope to make more history and do other cool things within the sport. It's a huge honor. There's no other way to put it. Any time you're mentioned with those greats, it's a huge honor.”

When Johnson won his first Daytona 500 in 2006, he went to victory lane without crew chief Chad Knaus, who had been sent home by NASCAR officials for cheating during inspection one week earlier. Knaus finally got to celebrate a Daytona 500 win Sunday in Daytona’s Victory Lane.

Johnson’s win back in 2006 was followed by many years of terrible finishes in NASCAR’s biggest race. Johnson was 39th in 2007, 27th in 2008, 31st in 2009, 35th in 2010, 27th in 2011 and 42nd last year.

The Daytona 500 wasn’t a monkey on Johnson’s back – it was a gorilla.

“Every one of them has been special," team owner Rick Hendrick said of Hendrick Motorsports' victories in the Daytona 500. "But we had a dry spell down here. I think it was it '06, and this is our seventh one now. You can be in front going into (Turn) 3, and you never make it back to the line.

“I was really happy today to see our cars be able to run 1-2. It's a great feeling. It gives you a lot of momentum to start the year.”

No one has more momentum than Johnson, who will embark on his Daytona 500 Champions Tour with a week’s worth of appearances around the country before heading to Phoenix for next Sunday’s race.

“It is just awesome,” Johnson said. “There is no other way to describe it. 400 starts, every one of those starts with Lowe's and Hendrick Motorsports. To be the first to win in a Gen-6 car, and that car is a Chevy SS, just a very proud moment. Plate racing has been tough on the 48 as we all know for the last few years. I’m happy to get through it all. It was just a strong race car. I feel like the speed our car had in it allowed me to really have control of the race there late. I felt like I was sitting on something all day and was just ready to have some fun when it counted, and it did.

“It’s definitely a great start for the team. When we were sitting discussing things before the season started, we felt good about the 500, but we're really excited for everything after the 500. So I’m very hopeful and excited that our 48 car will be really fast in Phoenix, Vegas, moving forward. I think it's going to be a very strong year for us.”

While Johnson is the big winner of the big race at Daytona, he is sharing some of the attention with Patrick and her impressive Daytona 500 run. After winning the pole last Sunday, the question was what she could do in the race.

Watching her skillful drive near the front of the field for most of the race was impressive, especially to race winner Johnson.

“Well, she's really comfortable in the car,” Johnson said of Patrick. “Being close to other competitors, door-to-door, whatever environment takes place on the racetrack, at these speeds, she was very comfortable. Held a great wheel. Was smooth and predictable. Took advantage of runs when she had them. She did a really good job.

“It was just another car on the track. I didn't think about it being Danica in the car. It was just another car on the track that was fast. That's a credit to her and the job she's doing.

“I think the style of racetrack really suits her. When we get to the other tracks, she has a tall learning curve ahead of her. She continues to show her ability to drive race cars. She made history today, and in fine fashion, too.”

With six laps to go, Johnson shot to the lead over Greg Biffle, followed by reigning Cup champion Brad Keselowski and Patrick, setting up the decisive fight to the finish. And while Patrick hung tough and remained in contention for the victory heading to the white flag, she got shuffled back on the final lap to finish eighth but drove an extremely impressive Daytona 500.

“I ran up front all day long, and we led a little,” Patrick said. “We stayed in the top 10 all day pretty much, had nice pit stops by the GoDaddy crew, the car was fast, and it’s always a little frustrating when you come through and you’re top three on that last lap. I will learn more for next time.

“I really didn’t feel like I had a great grasp as to ‘how do you go win this race?’ I hadn’t wrapped my head around exactly how that was going to happen. I kept thinking about it out there because for the most part I was running half-throttle for most of the race running in the line. I will know better for next time and for Talladega. I mean, the same stuff will probably apply. Good job, Jimmie (Johnson). We got a Chevy to win, so that is good.”

While Patrick achieved an historical first, Johnson proved why he is a driver for the ages with his victory. Although he led four times for just 17 laps, he knew the right time to put his No. 48 in position to win.

“I think it goes all the way back to when the caution came out and the fact that we were in the lead and gave me lane choice,” Johnson said. “The outside lane worked in most situations. When I had lane choice, I knew that we were set up to win the race, and it was up to me to not make a mistake and blow it.

“This Lowe’s Chevrolet was so fast. Chad did an amazing job. We stuck to our plan all week long. We knew it was a very fast race car and it would race well.

“We got that done here today.”

Earnhardt nearly got the job done but once again fell ever so short of winning his second Daytona 500. He is confident that a good start to the season will carry him forward to another Chase-contending year in 2013.

“Daytona -- it's like a drug, I assume. It's such a high,” Earnhardt said. “You just don't know when you'll ever get that opportunity again or if you'll ever get that opportunity again. I knew before I won in 2004, I was reserved to the idea I may be trying to win this race my entire career, because I knew all too well how that was for my father. I felt so much relief when I did win it. I'm ready to do it again. It's been too long. Running second over and over is great and all for our team, a good start to the season, but I would love, even having to go through all the hassle that Jimmie is about to go through this week, it's worth it.

“I noticed something last night coming out of the track for dinner, just seemed to be a different vibe inside the infield. People seemed more excited about what was getting ready to happen today. Even today, there seemed to be a whole lot more people here. Seemed to be a lot more excitement about the race. That really was the biggest motivator for me today. I think we're headed in the right direction. We may not be consistently each week. But I thought today for some reason it just felt like we're on the right track as a sport. That's got me really excited. So I'll take off and see you guys next week.”

Earnhardt helped bring Patrick to NASCAR when she was splitting time between the IZOD IndyCar Series and the NASCAR Nationwide Series in 2010-11. She left IndyCar at the end of 2011 to run full-time in NASCAR for JR Motorsports – Earnhardt’s Nationwide Series team.

Now, she is at Stewart-Haas Racing and is no longer driving for Earnhardt. But he continues to chart her progress.

“She's going to make a lot of history all year long,” Earnhardt said. “It's going to be a lot of fun to watch her progress. I think she's done her best work in the Cup car, myself. I think for whatever reason she seems to get a lot more out of that car. Every time I've seen her in a pretty hectic situation, she always really remained calm. She's got a great, level head. She's a racer. She knows what's coming. She's smart about her decisions. She knew what to do today as far as track position and not taking risks, like she said.

“I enjoy racing with her. Look forward to more all year long. It's just going to be a lot of fun having her in the series.”

Patrick is a fan favorite because of her looks and fierce determination behind the wheel of a race car. That is why she was second-guessing her effort when she was third with one lap to go, in contention for the victory, and ultimately finished eighth.

“I would imagine that pretty much anyone would kick themselves and say what could I have, should I have done to give myself that opportunity to win,” Patrick said. “I think that's what I was feeling today, was uncertainty as to how I was going to accomplish that. There was plenty of time while you were cruising along. I was talking to (crew chief) Tony (Gibson) and my spotter on the radio, 'What do you see people doing, what's working, what is not?’ I was thinking in the car, 'How am I going to do this?' I didn't know what to do exactly.

“So I feel like maybe that's just my inexperience. Maybe that's me not thinking hard enough. I don't know. I’m getting creative enough. I'm not sure. I definitely was a little uncertain how I was going to be able to do it. I think Dale did a nice job and shows what happens when you plan it out, you drop back, get that momentum and you're able to go to the front.

“You know, I think he taught me something, and I'm sure I'll watch the race and there will be other scenarios out there that I'll see that can teach me, too.”

Although she finished eighth in the first Cup race of her first full-time Cup season, Patrick isn’t going to let expectations run awry. She believes that would set herself up for failure.

“The only thing we can go off of is at the end of last year and running solid inside that top 20, hopefully get inside that top 15,” she said. “That's really all I can think right now. It might change after five races. It might be better. Who knows? It might be worse. We're going to kind of pick up where we left off.”

With so much attention and pressure placed on Patrick after winning the Daytona 500 pole, she got a little advice from her team owner, Stewart.

“He just said: ‘Block all this out. You go do it. It's your time now. Focus. You'll do a great job,’” Patrick said. “I'd love to be able to talk to somebody like Tony Stewart and just get the rundown on how it's going to go, but you have to experience it for yourself. For me, I also have to have experience to ask and figure out how to do them better next time. It's not so easy as to talk to Tony and get the scope of it.

“What he said was simple, but calming, and it probably was what also drove me to just, as soon as the anthem was over with, to get in the car. People are trying to make decisions around me. Are you going to do it? Are you not going to do it? I'm putting my earpiece in, if you want a picture with my back to you, that's fine, but I'm getting in the car because it's time to work.

“I'm honored. But, again, these are things that just happen along the way. I'm on the quest to be the best driver, run up front, and get to Victory Lane. These things happen, and I'm proud. But they're not the ultimate goal.”

Patrick hasn’t reached her goal yet, but the Daytona 500 was a good start.

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