DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — After winning his first Daytona 500 in 2006, which served as the launching point for his unprecedented streak of five consecutive NASCAR Sprint Cup championships, Jimmie Johnson seemed to fade into the background in his next six appearances in NASCAR’s traditional season opener at Daytona International Speedway, finishing no better than 27th, in both 2008 and 2011.
And last year’s race?
Johnson was seen slinking away from Daytona after his No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet was collected in a six-car crash on the frontstretch of the 2.5-mile tri-oval, resulting in a career-worst 42d-place finish after completing just one lap.
It was yet another in a disturbing pattern of carburetor-restricted disappointments for Johnson at Daytona.
“Plate racing has been tough on the 48 as we all know for the last few years,’’ said Johnson, who completed all 200 laps Sunday to win the 55th running of the Daytona 500, holding off Dale Earnhardt Jr. in a 1-2 finish between Hendrick Motorsports teammates.
Mark Martin, the sport’s 54-year-old patron saint, finished third while reigning Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski (fourth) and Ryan Newman rounded out the top five.
“Happy to get through it all,’’ said Johnson, who led four times for 17 laps, including the last 10 after he wrested the lead from Keselowski. “Just a strong racecar. 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.’’
Danica Patrick finished eighth after becoming the first woman to win a Sprint Cup pole and lead a lap at Daytona (three times for five laps). But Johnson wrested away the spotlight by emerging as the convincing winner of a race that was largely devoid of the problems that pockmarked Daytona’s previous four races.
It wasn’t rain-shortened (as in Matt Kenseth’s victory in 2009) and there were no potholes to repair (as in Jamie McMurray’s win in 2010). Nor was it marred by awkward tandem-style racing (as in Trevor Bayne’s 2011 victory), or by a rain-postponement and fireball delay (as in Kenseth’s victory last year).
A sense of normalcy seemed to return to Daytona with Johnson’s return to Victory Lane.
By driving his Chevrolet SS to victory in the debut of NASCAR’s sixth generation car — the Gen-6 — Johnson and his team led by crew chief Chad Knaus went back to the three basics that served them well during their run of five consecutive championships: hard work, hard work, and more hard work.
“Jimmie did a great job today,’’ said Knaus, who did not preside as crew chief for Johnson’s first Daytona 500 win after he was ejected for improper modifications found during inspection.
“You know, we work really hard at Hendrick Motorsports to prepare for the superspeedway races. We put a great product out there. I’m telling you, I know we worked at least 35 days straight on the car that we raced in the Daytona 500. I know I put in personally 38 hours straight.
“I actually sent Jimmie a text saying, ‘I’ve seen 6:48 [on the clock] three times today and haven’t been to bed yet.’ ’’
That dogged pursuit of perfection didn’t end when the team unloaded at Daytona, where concerns about the Gen-6’s handling characteristics in the side draft caused many drivers to balk about spending too much time practicing out of fear of crashing their cars (see Carl Edwards, who wrecked four times during Speedweeks, the last time in a nine-car melee in Turn 1 on Lap 138).
But Johnson was spotted time and again on single-car runs during each practice session.
“We worked real hard, we had a game plan down here every time [in practice],’’ Johnson said. “Even though we were in single-car drafts, we had an agenda we worked on and made the car a little bit better each day, kept perfecting it.
“I had one heck of a racecar today.’’
That much was evident when Johnson and Keselowski swapped the lead five times in the last 14 laps, before Johnson took it for good when he got drafting support from Denny Hamlin, the last man standing from Joe Gibbs Racing’s three-car stable of Toyotas, to surge past Keselowski on Lap 191.
Two laps later, the race was slowed for the sixth and final caution for debris in Turn 2.
“The caution truthfully fell at a good time for us,’’ said Johnson, who had fought his way along the bottom, side-drafting Keselowski to keep him from pulling away. “Right when we surged ahead, that allowed me to get ahead for the driver’s choice [on the restart] for which lane we wanted.’’
Johnson chose wisely on the restart on Lap 194, taking the preferred outside line which he fiercely protected to take the checkered flag.
After going through a two-year championship drought, and seven years between Daytona 500 victories, Johnson was asked if Sunday’s triumph signaled his return to championship form.
“No, I don’t think we went anywhere,’’ Johnson said. “Everybody in the garage area, they’re wise to all that. We had great pace last year, championship form, had two bad races at the end.
“You know, I’m just enjoying this moment. This is a one-of-a-kind race.’’
Johnson’s 61st career win came in his 400th career start — Lee and Richard Petty, David Pearson, Dave Marcis, and Dale Earnhardt are the only other drivers in NASCAR history to win in their 400th start.
And it is one Johnson should get a lot of mileage from in his quest for another title.
“When we pull into the gates at Phoenix next weekend, it’s a totally different game as we all know,’’ Johnson said. “If there’s some down points through the year, we’ll look back on this race and smile again.’’