Jimmie Johnson made his 400th career start in the Sprint Cup Series a very special one by winning Sunday's Daytona 500.
Johnson, the five-time series champion, held off a last-lap challenge from Hendrick Motorsports teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. to win the 500-mile race at Daytona International Speedway for the second time. His first victory in this event came in 2006.
He became the 10th different driver to win multiple Daytona 500s in the 55- year history of this event. The 37-year-old from El Cajon, Calif. also joined NASCAR legends Dale Earnhardt, Richard Petty, Lee Petty and David Pearson as those who won a race in their 400th start.
Furthermore, Johnson is credited with winning the first points race in NASCAR's new Sprint Cup race car, the Gen-6. He drives the No. 48 Chevrolet.
"It's just awesome," Johnson said. "There's no other way to describe it, 400 starts, every one of those starts with Lowe's (team sponsor) and Hendrick Motorsports. To be the first to win in a Gen-6 car, and that car is a Chevy SS, just a very proud moment."
Johnson had finished no better than 27th in the previous six Daytona 500s.
"Plate racing has been tough on the 48, as we all know from the last few years," he noted. "I'm happy to get through it all. 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, and it did."
Johnson gave crew chief Chad Knaus his first victory in the Daytona 500. Knaus was suspended for the '06 race when NASCAR officials discovered an unapproved template modification to the rear window area of Johnson's car during post- qualifying inspection a week before the event. Knaus has been the crew chief for Johnson since his rookie season in 2002.
"As you guys know, I eat, sleep and breathe 48," Knaus said during the post- race press conference for the winning team. "Anytime that I'm taken away from that racecar, I'm pretty sad. But when those guys were able to come down here and win the Daytona 500 in 2006 in my absence, I think that really solidified the strength of the 48 car."
Johnson grabbed the lead from Brad Keselowski, the defending Sprint Cup champion, just before the caution flag waved for the sixth and final time with less than 10 laps remaining. He beat Earnhardt to the finish line by just 0.129 seconds. Earnhardt has finished in the runner-up spot in three of the last four Daytona 500s. He won this event in 2004.
"I'm really happy with the way the car ran all day," Earnhardt said. "You couldn't pass much, but when I was able to really see what my car could do, it was plenty capable of winning the race."
Earnhardt did not lead a lap in this race.
Danica Patrick became the highest-finishing female ever in the Daytona 500 with an eighth-place run. Janet Guthrie previously held the record in NASCAR's most prestigious race of the season when she finished 11th in 1980. Patrick was running in third on the last lap but lost momentum, as she was shuffled back in the pack.
Patrick made more history in the sport by becoming the first woman to lead a lap in the Daytona 500. One week ago, she set a record as the first female to win a pole position for a Sprint Cup race.
"I would imagine that pretty much anyone would kick themselves and say what could I have, should I have done to give myself that opportunity to win," said Patrick, who made her 11th career Sprint Cup start. "I think that's what I was feeling today, was uncertainty as to how I was going to accomplish that. There was plenty of time while you were cruising along."