Jimmie Johnson won the Daytona 500 on Sunday as pole sitter Danica Patrick's bid to become the first woman to win a NASCAR Sprint Cup race ended in an eighth-placed finish. Johnson held off a last-lap charge from Hendrick Motorsports teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr at Daytona International Speedway to win "The Great American Race" for the second time. Mark Martin was third.
Patrick, already the first woman to earn pole position for a race in NASCAR's elite series, did grab another slice of racing history when she became the first woman to lead a lap of the Daytona 500 and the first to lead a lap of a Sprint Cup race under a green flag. "It was nice to run up in that lead group," Patrick said. "The only downside was I didn't get a chance to take a risk.
"I am here to learn. I felt pretty comfortable. Taking the green flag, that is the best place to be on the track." Her quest for history was in the spotlight all day. Even grand marshal James Franco took note, calling at the start: "Drivers -- and Danica -- start your engines!"
Jeff Gordon, starting beside her on the front row, seized the lead on the first lap, but when Patrick moved to the front on the 90th, it was to a huge ovation from the crowd. She ran in front for a total of five laps. It was another milestone for Patrick, who was an Indianapolis rookie in 2005 when she became the first woman to lead laps in the Indianapolis 500.
Her five laps at the head of the field matched Janet Guthrie's career mark, but Guthrie's five laps in the lead of a race in Ontario, California, in 1977 were all during a caution period when drivers can't overtake. Patrick ran in the top 10 for most of the race. A slow early pit stop cost her some places, but moved to the front after a quick pitstop before the third restart from a caution shortly before the halfway point.
From there, she held off Matt Kenseth and Clint Bowyer at the start-finish line to lead the 90th and 91st laps. She regained the lead on the 127th lap after Kenseth made a scheduled pit stop, then led through the 129th lap until making another stop herself. Patrick was running in third on the final lap in her bright green Chevrolet.
But when Earnhardt made his move on the inside of the speedway oval, she was shuffled back.
Patrick, who appeared to have plenty of speed, admitted that she just didn't know what move she could have made to try and seize the victory. "You spend a lot of time thinking about what to do when the time comes," Patrick said.
"I kept asking up above what was working. You needed a hole, you needed people to help you out. I had a little bit of help today here and there, but I felt like if I was going to dive low, I had a feeling I was going to get freight-trained."
Johnson had emerged from the pack after a tense restart from a caution with six laps remaining and held on to add a second Daytona title to the one he captured in 2006. He and other drivers made sure to offer good wishes to the fans who were hurt on Saturday, when debris from a Nationwide second-tier series race crash was hurled into the grandstand, injuring dozens of people.
None of Sunday's crashes were life-threatening, although an early nine-car accident put an end the challenge of pre-race favorite Kevin Harvick and Tony Stewart, a three-time Sprint Cup champion who has never won the Daytona 500.