Johnson led the final 10 laps, often by using his brakes to make sure he didn’t get too far ahead of a group forming behind him for a late challenge. Although there was a big shakeup of the running order on the final lap, the only thing that stayed the same was Johnson’s two car-length advantage at the finish line.
“Plate racing is awfully tough form of racing and there’s a lot of luck involved,” Johnson said after winning $1,525,275. “Pack racing is a little different. You can’t ride around and kind of wait for things to happen. You have to race all day long and fight for track position.
“But honestly, once I had control of the race, I knew I was getting a lot of speed with the car. It was so fast.”
Johnson also won the 2006 Daytona 500 before going on to winning one of his five Sprint Cup Series championships.
NASCAR’s new sixth generation race car forced a different strategy for the Daytona International Speedway. Drivers were hesitant about two-car tandems because the aerodynamics and body styles weren’t like last year’s cars. The result was a race full of single-file lines of traffic against the outside wall.
But when it came down to the final 10 laps, that line eventually broke up into three-wide packs with everyone looking for a drafting partner to power to the front.
“I had a lot of confidence in the last two laps leading this train,” Johnson said.
As everyone jockeyed for position, Johnson slowed down to make sure cars couldn’t work in tandem to get a running start.
On the final lap, second-place runner Greg Biffle and third-place Danica Patrick didn’t work together enough and that allowed Dale Earnhardt Jr. to rally from fourth to a second-place finish and Mark Martin from fifth to third.
“The way our cars work, there’s more help with cars pushing you,” said Johnson, who spent the first 450 miles creating a game plan for the stretch drive.
“There’s a bubble in there that shoots you ahead. We call it the beach ball effect. You drag your brake and wait for that contact from the car behind you.”
Biffle was shuffled back to a sixth-place finish, while Patrick became the highest-finishing woman in Daytona 500 history in eighth.
“The only thing I could do was stay in line,” Biffle said. “Off of (Turn) 4 I was going to back up to Danica. I knew (Earnhardt) Junior was backing up and then they said Junior is coming on the bottom. He was coming so fast (with Martin) I don’t think I could have blocked him.”
Earnhardt’s charge in the final half-mile gave car owner Rick Hendrick a one-two finish. It also was Earnhardt’s third second-place finish in a row at the 500.
“Once we came to Turn 4, we kind of run out of steam, didn’t have enough to get a run on Jimmie,” Earnhardt said. “I was hoping [Martin] was thinking what I was thinking. We ran out of steam off of fourth. It just didn’t work out perfectly. Not enough race track. It’s really hard to pass the leader.”
Defending series champion Brad Keselowski wound up fourth, while Ryan Newman rebounded from an early accident to be fifth. The rest of the top 10 finishers were: Biffle, Regan Smith, Patrick, Michael McDowell and J.J. Yeley.
A crash on the 34th lap eliminated several contenders. After three cars slowed in front of him, Kyle Busch gave Kasey Kahne bump heading into the first turn. When Kahne turned sideways, he collected cars driven by Kevin Harvick, Tony Stewart, Juan Pablo Montoya, Jamie McMurray, Casey Mears and Keselowski.
Patrick didn’t lead until Lap 90, but she managed to keep her No. 10 Chevrolet in the top 10 all day.
Carl Edwards wrecked for the fifth time at Daytona, counting testing, practice and preliminary races. The last accident started on the 138th lap when Keselowski ran into David Reutimann’s car going into the first turn. Edwards, Trevor Bayne, Josh Wise, David Ragan, Terry Labonte, David Gilliland, Austin Dillon and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. all were involved in the chain reaction.
Matt Kenseth led a race-best 86 laps and he led a parade of three Joe Gibbs Racing cars at the front when his yellow Toyota belched smoke and rolled to a stop on pit road on the 150th lap.
Three laps later, teammate Kyle Busch’s engine blew up.
The running order jumbled again following a final round of green-flag pit stops with 25 laps to go. Brad Keselowski went from sixth to first during the stops, while race leader Denny Hamlin dropped to fifth.
Jeff Burton’s hard crash into the frontstretch wall with 24 laps remaining set up a 19-lap dash to the finish line. Johnson and Keselowski swapped the lead six times in a seven-lap stretch after that before Johnson finally broke away in the last 10 laps.
And once he got out front, he used his brakes to make sure he had the fastest car for the final lap.