Johnson overcomes odds, late rush to win 500

Updated: February 20, 2006, 3:22 PM ET
By Rupen Fofaria | Special to ESPN.com

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Jimmie Johnson raced to make a statement on Sunday. Then he shouted for anyone within earshot to hear just in case his racing hadn't gotten the message across.

"We won the Daytona 500!" he yelled.

Johnson made the winning pass on his teammate, Brian Vickers, on lap 186 and held off charges from a half-dozen drivers over the final 43 miles of what turned out to be a 507.5-mile race. Casey Mears won a spirited battle with fellow Dodge driver Ryan Newman for second. Ford driver Elliott Sadler finished fourth and Chevrolet driver Tony Stewart rounded out the top five.

Afterward, Johnson said he needed to make a statement after receiving harsh criticism for purportedly being the cause of wrecks in superspeedway races last year. On top of that, he wanted to show support for Chad Knaus, his crew chief who got ejected from Daytona after NASCAR officials discovered a raised rear window on the No. 48 Chevrolet, charging Knaus with trying to gain an aerodynamic advantage.

"The team was very hungry," Johnson said. "If you think about what we overcame and the pressure that's on any team in any sport when they're faced with something like this, this is a huge, huge statement. We stepped up today in one of the biggest races in our sport and I'm very proud."

Knaus watched the race on television in Charlotte, N.C., sorely wanting to help his team but feeling powerless to do so. His team insisted that he was anything but powerless. He had already done all he needed to by establishing a race strategy from the moment the team arrived at Daytona and by training the man who would fill in as his crew chief. He also gave the team a shot in the arm before it started the race, faxing a note to his driver and asking that he read it to the team.

"Do your best job," the note said. "I believe in you guys. I trained you well. It's time to do your job."

"And we did," Johnson said.

Particularly his unflappable part-time crew chief, lead engineer Darian Grubb, who said the secret of his success was trying to be like Knaus.

"This job is very hard," the 30-year-old first-time crew chief said. "Chad has always done a great job and he's trained me well. I think I've learned everything I've ever learned from him."

Aferward, Johnson was peppered with questions about Knaus' ejection and whether it would overshadow his victory. Was the penalty on Knaus too harsh considering the team hadn't broken a specific rule? Given that the crew chief was penalized for an illegally set-up car, should the car have been confiscated and Johnson been forced to use a backup? Does Johnson think his competitors question whether the team cheated again with the car, or cheated by contacting Knaus for advice during the race?

"This could still be the first opportunity for NASCAR to pull away a victory if the thing is illegal," Newman said. "It's disappointing. I think a lot of Jimmie Johnson and his talent, but I'm pretty sure at least three of his last four wins have had complications with the cars being illegal."

Right away, it was apparent that his first Daytona 500 championship was at risk of being accompanied with an asterisk. As on the race track, he moved swiftly to quiet the contention.

"There's a black mark next to qualifying, but not the race," he said. "It's just the opposite, I think. The situation we were in -- we overcame everything that was against us."

At least following the race, Johnson has some support from his peers.

"In my mind, the fact that they got caught earlier in the week took away every doubt in my mind that they'd actually do anything to cheat in this race," Mears said. "I think it was a well-earned victory."

A victory somewhat predicted by Johnson.

He was convinced he could win if he had the lead with less than 25 miles to go. Before the race, he stressed to his team that everybody, driver and pit crew, had to do everything possible to be in position to come out of the last round of pit stops in the lead.

Do that, Johnson said, and his team would win.

When Travis Kvapil's car broke down with about 60 miles to go in regulation, it set up that crucial last round of pit stops. The No. 48 team changed two tires and refueled, but Johnson didn't get out first. He got out second, behind Vickers.

"I knew we were in a really good position at that point," he said.

Meanwhile, with his teammate behind him, Vickers was excited and nervous. The concern stemmed from knowing that Johnson is one of the most talented racers in the sport. The excitement stemmed from having a friendly driver to draft with. Vickers said he thought his car ran well all day, but he couldn't get to the lead on the track because he couldn't get anyone to draft behind him and push.

"We need to get the sticker off the back of us that says 'Don't run with us,' " Vickers told his crew chief.

Two laps after the race restarted for green-flag action, Johnson went to the outside line and pulled alongside Vickers. Newman, who was running third, quickly tucked in behind the No. 48 car and pushed Johnson by Vickers and into the lead.

Johnson was suddenly right in the position he'd told his crew he needed to be.

As soon as Johnson took the lead, Kurt Busch brought out another caution. Running in sixth place, he spun when trailing driver Jamie McMurray, racing the car Busch drove last season when the rig carried the No. 97 on it, got into the back of Busch. Busch hit the wall and started veering down the track.

With 25 miles to go in regulation, the green flag dropped to restart the race and Johnson led a lead pack of cars consisting of Vickers, Newman, Mears, Kasey Kahne and McMurray, to a small cushion from the rest of the field.

Newman preyed on Vickers for two laps, bumping the back of Vickers' car. Finally, he got the sophomore racer loose enough to pass and try to challenge Johnson. Mears followed Newman by Vickers for third. By this point, the rest of the field had closed in, including three notable racers: Dale Earnhardt Jr., who had dropped to 21st from eighth before the previous caution; Sadler, who was mired in the middle pack most of the day; and Tony Stewart, who -- through three on-track altercations and one penalty -- had yo-yo'd from the front to the back of the race numerous times.

With Johnson leading Newman and Mears, Junior broke out to the outside from farther back in the pack with Sadler. The wreck-fest continued, however, as McMurray crashed after contact with pole-sitter Jeff Burton behind the leaders. Because the wreck occurred with only four laps to go in regulation, and because NASCAR policy is to go into one overtime (green-white-checkered) to avoid races finishing under caution, drivers started strategizing for the two-lap overtime session.

Johnson led Newman and Mears, and Sadler beat Junior for fourth. Meanwhile, out of that middle pack that had caught the leaders, Stewart emerged in seventh.

While under caution, Newman sent a crewman to speak to representatives from Mears' and Sadler's teams asking the two to go with Newman when he was going to pull to the outside of Johnson on the restart. Newman's crew chief, Matt Borland, said there was resistance because the two teams knew if they spent time pushing Newman by Johnson, there might not be enough miles left in the race for them to race for a win themselves.

When the green flag fell on overtime for a two-lap sprint to the finish, Johnson, Newman and Mears put a little distance between them and the rest. Newman then pulled to the outside to try to pass Johnson, but he was stuck in a battle with Mears while Johnson cruised on ahead to victory.

Newman said he thought he had a deal with Mears where Mears would push him by Johnson and then the two of them would duke it out over the final lap.

"Too bad he didn't go through with that," Newman said.

But Mears said he had to protect himself. Sadler had a strong run behind him and he thought if he went behind Newman, Sadler would pass them both. He wanted to secure a high finish.

Watching in his mirror, Johnson said he was never worried because he thought he could count on his good friend Mears. After all, Mears was a groomsman at his wedding. He was thankful for how everything played out and recalled all of the heat he had taken for his superspeedway racing in the past.

"You have no idea how proud I am to be sitting here as the winner of the Daytona 500," he said. " … It's the greatest feeling right now."

Rupen Fofaria is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at rfofaria@yahoo.com.

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