Jimmie Johnson celebrates after winning the Daytona 500 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series auto race Sunday at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Fla.
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — A day after a crash took the focus away from racing and threatened to turn NASCAR’s season-opening showcase, the Daytona 500, into an afterthought, Danica Patrick did what she does best. She put the focus right back on her.
Patrick, in her first full season in the Sprint Cup, did not become the first woman to win a NASCAR race. The dramatics in the 55th Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway were instead delivered by the five-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, who outraced the field after a late caution and declared himself the driver to beat for the title this year with the victory. And Dale Earnhardt Jr. made a similar declaration, finishing a strong second.
After capturing his second Daytona 500 victory of his career, Johnson said from victory lane: “Man, this race car, this Lowe’s Chevrolet, was so good. I could really stay up front all day long, and I had a lot of confidence those final few laps leading the train. I knew just how fast this car was.”
But along with Johnson, Patrick was surely the story as well Sunday. She had created national headlines all week after becoming the first woman to secure a pole in the premier Sprint Cup series, and she reached another milestone Sunday when she became the first woman to lead a lap in the Cup series. She led twice for a total of five laps in the 200-lap race.
And just as significant, Patrick spent most of the race proving she could race with the best in NASCAR. She raced in the top 10 all race long, and when the checkered flag waved, found herself in eighth place — the best finish by a woman at the Daytona 500, topping Janet Guthrie’s 11th-place showing in 1980.
“At the end of the day, it was a solid day for the Go Daddy car and the Go Daddy crew,” Patrick said. “We stayed basically top 10 all day long. I can’t really complain about that.”
Patrick said she was actually disappointed in the finish; she was third going into the last lap but got shuffled back in the final scramble to the checkered flag.
Actor James Franco perhaps inadvertently dissed Patrick when he gave the call to start engines. Franco said, “Drivers and Danica, start your engines.”
But as Patrick proved Sunday, she is a driver. And when the spotlight is at its brightest, Patrick shines just a little bit more. She showed that before in the IndyCar Series, becoming the only woman to win a race and the only woman to lead laps at the Indianapolis 500.
Earlier Sunday, the talk at Daytona was still focused on a last-lap crash in the Nationwide Series race Saturday, when Kyle Larson’s race car went airborne and crashed into the catch-fence and sent debris into the stands. There were 28 injuries, but only two people remained hospitalized and were stable.
That promising report allowed racing, and Patrick, to once again become the story. Patrick even succeeded in taking some of the focus off what was largely a questionable debut by the new Gen-6 race cars introduced this season. The race cars were designed to look more like showroom models. But there was very little green-flag passing for the lead as most drivers were content to drive in single-file for much of the race.
Patrick had few wobbles through the race. After starting on the pole, she was not able to hang on to lead the first lap. Gordon quickly moved ahead of her on the outside and led the first lap. But Patrick, who quickly moved to the back of the field in a qualifying race Thursday, held her ground after that. She tucked in behind Gordon and did not give away a spot, following Gordon around the track through the early portion of the race.
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