It’s hard to have a hands-down, class-of-the field car in a restrictor-plate race, but don’t tell Jimmie Johnson, who dominated Daytona Saturday night in uncharacteristically decisive fashion — and reached another milestone at the Birthplace of Speed.
In a wild race that featured two massive wrecks on the last lap alone, Johnson beat Tony Stewart to the finish line in the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway to record the first season sweep of NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races at the 2.5-mile tri-oval since Bobby Allison accomplished the feat in 1982.
As Johnson crossed the line at the end of a green-white-checkered-flag finish, the second of the two multicar accidents erupted behind him. Kevin Harvick stayed in front of the melee to run third, followed by Clint Bowyer and Michael Waltrip.
“Glad I was ahead of all the chaos,” said a relieved Stewart, who rode in the back for much of the evening before making his move to the front in the closing laps.
Johnson was ahead of the chaos, too, and above the fray — head-and-shoulders above it. Driving a No. 48 Chevrolet SS nicknamed “White Lightning” for its blue-on-white Lowe’s paint scheme, Johnson led 94 of 161 laps and executed key restarts flawlessly as the leader late in the race.
The victory was Johnson’s fourth of the season — tying Matt Kenseth for most in the series — and the 64th of his career. He leads second-place Bowyer by 49 points in the series standings with eight races left before the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup field is set at Richmond.
“Had a great horse to ride; got White Lightning in Victory Lane,” Johnson said after climbing from the car. “It’s tough to [dominate] at a plate track. Especially with how tight the rules are. I think I showed strength early, and a lot of guys were willing to work with me and help me through situations.
“I don’t know if I really made a bad move tonight, so I’m pretty proud of that.”
Johnson was doubly proud to join Allison, Fireball Roberts, Cale Yarborough and LeeRoy Yarbrough as the only drivers to sweep both Sprint Cup races at Daytona in a single season.
“Gosh, growing up in Southern California and watching Bobby Allison, and I remember where I was the day [Bobby’s son] Davey passed away (after a 1993 helicopter crash at Talladega),” Johnson said. “That’s how much the Allison family meant to me.
“I always thought it was great to watch Bobby and Davey race, and to do anything Bobby has done is pretty special.”
The five-time champion led the field to the restart on Lap 133 and stayed in the top spot until a wild six-car crash near the entry to the tri-oval on Lap 149 stacked two-thirds of the field and wrecked the cars of Denny Hamlin (who slammed nose-first into the frontstretch wall), Jeff Gordon, Matt Kenseth, AJ Allmendinger, Dave Blaney and David Reutimann.
The accident stopped the race for eight minutes, 53 seconds while track workers picked up the debris. Johnson led the field to another restart on Lap 154 and two laps later, Ambrose, running third, pinballed off Johnson’s No. 48 car and knocked the No. 5 Chevrolet of Kasey Kahne into the inside backstretch wall to cause the race’s sixth caution.
That set up the green-white-checkered finish that took the race one lap past its scheduled distance of 160 laps.
Harvick, who thought he was in excellent position for the final restart, was clearly disappointed with his third-place run.
“Yeah, we didn’t win,” said Harvick, who restarted from the inside lane, beside Johnson and with Bowyer behind him, for the two-lap dash to the finish. “That was our expectation coming here, and that’s the expectation going to the superspeedway tracks … I’m kind of disappointed just for the fact that I felt like we were in the right position.
“I felt like the 15 (Bowyer) was going to be a really good pusher, based on the restart before… I’m a little disappointed because I really felt like we were in the right spot, but it’s hard to complain.”
Johnson had the dominant car, but attrition also helped him, starting with a collision that hobbled four strong cars on Lap 98. The No. 56 Toyota of Martin Truex Jr. got loose off Turn 4 and turned sideways, triggering a wreck that collected the cars of Denny Hamlin, Juan Pablo Montoya and Kyle Busch. The crash ended the winning chances of all but Busch, whose team effected quick repairs to the nose of the No. 18 Camry on pit road.
Busch rallied to finish 12th despite being a victim of the last-lap crash, but Truex, who cracked the top 10 in points after winning at Sonoma to break a 218-race drought, fell out of the race in 41st place and dropped back out of the top 10.
So did Joey Logano, who blew a tire in Turn 2 on Lap 70 and slammed into the outside wall. A week after working his way into the 10th spot in the standings, Logano was out again after being credited with a 40th-place result.
Notes: Carl Edwards was a victim of the first wreck on the last lap, finishing 29th and dropping to third in the standings, 71 points behind Johnson … Kurt Busch ran sixth and cracked the top 10 in points for the first time this season. He’s currently ninth, 157 points behind Johnson … Danica Patrick ran as high as second after the 100-lap mark but was part of the crash near the finish line on the last lap. She finished 14th … Stewart regained the six positions in the standings he lost over the past two weeks. He’s now 10th in points, the last position that guarantees a spot in the Chase.