By Jim Peltz Los Angeles Times
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — As the cars barreled into the final lap, there was a chance the improbable might happen at the Daytona 500.
Jimmie Johnson, the five-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion, led the field with Greg Biffle on his tail and Danica Patrick stuck to Biffle’s rear bumper.
If Patrick could find a way to maneuver around Johnson and Biffle, Patrick would become the first woman to win the sport’s crown-jewel race, in only her second attempt.
But for as strongly as Patrick ran Sunday, at the end her inexperience showed. She was passed by several cars on the last lap, and Johnson never relinquished the lead to win his second Daytona 500.
“Once I had control of the race, I knew I was sitting on a lot of speed,” Johnson said of his No. 48 Chevrolet. “I had a lot of confidence in the final few laps.”
Johnson’s teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. was second, giving their Hendrick Motorsports team a 1-2 finish; Mark Martin was third and reigning Cup champion Brad Keselowski finished fourth. Biffle was sixth.
Patrick finished eighth, making more history as she kicked off her first full season in the Cup series at Daytona International Speedway.
It was the highest finish for a woman in the Daytona 500, and she also led five laps, becoming the first female driver to lead a lap in the famed race. When she took the lead for the first time on Lap 90, the crowd erupted in cheers.
Patrick, 30, started on the pole — the first woman to accomplish that feat too — and hoped to lead the first lap, but Jeff Gordon passed her immediately after the green flag waved.
But as the field stayed in a single-file freight train for most of the race, Patrick kept her No. 10 Chevrolet near the lead on the high-banked, 2.5-mile track, earning her added respect among NASCAR’s veterans.
“She’s going to make a lot of history all year long,” Earnhardt said. “She knew what to do today as far as track position and not taking risks. She’s a racer.”
Patrick herself was subdued afterward, saying, “Today is a day I can look at and be happy for certain things and learn from others. Nothing super-duper eventful.”
She acknowledged being uncertain as to how to press for the win at the finish, “so I feel like maybe that’s just my inexperience. Maybe that’s me not thinking hard enough. I don’t know.
“It was a solid day, steady day,” she said. And Patrick downplayed her latest milestones as a female driver, saying “These are things that just happen along the way.”
Patrick, a former IndyCar driver who first gained fame by nearly winning the Indianapolis 500 in 2005, said, “The stat that I found more interesting is only 13 people, including me now, have led Indy and Daytona.”
Although this was Johnson’s second Daytona 500 win, it was the first in person for his longtime crew chief, Chad Knaus.
When Johnson won the race in 2006, Knaus was at home serving a suspension after inspectors found an illegal modification to Johnson’s car during qualifying.
“I eat, sleep and breathe 48,” Knaus said. “Any time that I’m taken away from that race car, I’m pretty sad. To finally be able to come down here and win and be a part of this is definitely a huge dream come true.”
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Sunday’s race also was the first test of NASCAR’s new car, dubbed the Gen 6. It was unclear if the parade-style racing that abated only at the end resulted from the new car, or whether it reflected the quirkiness of Daytona, where NASCAR restricts speeds and the cars always travel in packs.
Either way, drivers were afraid to pass until the end, fearful that if they got out of line they’d lose too many positions.
“The car is doing everything we hoped it would do,” Earnhardt said. “You hate to give up any track position.”
Despite so much single-file racing, there were two major wrecks.
Tony Stewart, Kevin Harvick and Juan Pablo Montoya were among the drivers involved in the first, and the second collected Carl Edwards and former Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne, among others.
There also was a multicar crash behind the leaders on the last lap, but NASCAR held off throwing the caution flag as Johnson and the others raced to the finish.