Johnson gets his revenge

THE BALTIMORE SUN

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Nextel Cup driver Jimmie Johnson couldn't believe his good fortune. He drove into Victory Lane, climbed from his car and heard himself referred to as the winner of the Daytona 500.

"Say it again, please," he said, and then screamed, "WE WON THE DAYTONA 500."

Johnson won the 48th Daytona 500 in his No. 48 Chevrolet for car owner Rick Hendrick. It was his 148th career start. And the victory, his 19th in the Cup Series, came in what may be judged one of the most entertaining 500s in recent memory, despite finishing under caution on Lap 203.

Casey Mears, in his No. 42 Dodge, finished second, and Ryan Newman, in his No. 12 Dodge, was third.

As thrilling as it was for Johnson and his team, it was an achievement filled with bitterness as well as joy.

"After all the trouble and criticism this team has been through," Johnson said, "I'm dedicating this to all the haters of the 48 team."

A week ago, Johnson's crew chief, Chad Knaus, was sent home from the biggest race of the season for cheating when the No. 48 Chevrolet was found in violation of NASCAR's template rules with a rear window that did not fit the prescribed dimensions.

Since then, Johnson and his team had felt disrespected - in media reports and by other teams who were perceived to be whispering behind their backs.

Yesterday, at least one driver went on the record about what he thought of the race results in which a team, whose crew chief was caught cheating before the race, wound up in Victory Lane.

"Hey, you know, this could still be the first opportunity for NASCAR to pull away a victory if the thing is still illegal," Newman said. "We'll see what comes of it.

"It's just disappointing. I mean, I think a lot of Jimmie Johnson and his talent and stuff, but I'm pretty sure at least three out of his last four - if not three of his last three - wins have had [issues] with the cars being illegal. It's not good for the sport."

The 48 team actually has had veracity problems in two of their previous four wins before yesterday. At Las Vegas last season, where they were caught with an illegal fuel cell, and at Dover, Del., where their shocks were banned after the race.

Last night, car No. 48 passed post-race inspection without problem.

"Their team did a good job of putting Jimmie in position to win the race," Newman said. "Everything else aside, Jimmie did drive a smart and somewhat overaggressive race.

"I think the point that should be driven home is if we have repeat offenders or the situation happens time and time again with a certain individual, there's something more that should be done other than suspension."

Johnson, who had just given Hendrick his sixth Daytona 500 victory - and a back-to-back victory, after Jeff Gordon's win last year - and who had seen acting crew chief Darian Grubb win the 500 in his first opportunity, was defensive.

"I kind of view it as jealousy, [because Newman] doesn't have a crew chief in there working hard enough to make his cars as good," said Johnson, 30, who won for the first time in nine tries. "This team has worked way too hard to even have those kind of comments thrown at them, and I'm going to be very defensive over it. ... I'm disappointed that Ryan has to come in here and make some different statements and try to tarnish what we accomplished today."

Johnson said he believes what his team did, overcoming the qualifying day violation and all the back-stabbing is the opposite of having a black mark on the victory.

"If you think about what we overcame, and the pressure that's on any team in any sport, if they were faced with something like this, the team had a huge burden, really as much as you could dream up, and they made a huge statement, something I'm very proud of.

"We play within a set of rules. Chad broke the rules. He's admitted that. He's in Charlotte watching the race today - and probably kicking his TV because he isn't here. He missed the event. We're serving our penalty. We're doing everything we can do. We stepped up today and won the biggest race in our sport."

For Johnson and Grubb, it was almost an easy victory.

The acting crew chief said Knaus had done all the work, prepared the team, had it ready to do its job. Grubb said he simply had to sit up on the "war wagon" in the pits and watch the victory unfold.

When he was asked late in the race by a NBC reporter if he was nervous, Grubb shrugged.

"No," he said. "Why should I be nervous? I have the best car and the best driver out there and we're leading. Why would I be nervous?"

Later, Grubb said, "I honestly wasn't nervous until the checkered flag fell. I just sat there, and I just knew I had faith in all the rest of the team, the team that Chad built, this Hendrick Motorsports team. Everybody did their job.

"This is a day I'll talk about for the rest of my life."

And Johnson simply maintained his composure as Tony Stewart had run-ins with Gordon and Matt Kenseth, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. made an uncharacteristic mistake, getting caught on the outside while running with the lead pack, a move that dropped him all the way back to 20th before he could start climbing back to the front.

And while other cars were bump drafting and getting caught up in accidents, Johnson hung back. He led just seven laps before taking the lead for the last time on that 187th lap.

"The hardest thing being a driver, especially on a [restrictor] plate track, is when you have some momentum and you feel like you can pass someone, you want to take advantage of that and try to pass," he said. "But there's more to the pass than the energy that you have in your excitement.

"Today, I just really slowed down the pace of the race, in my eyes, from what I was doing and made sure that I made smart moves that wouldn't have me hung out of the draft. I didn't try as hard to be the guy who led the most laps or make the most aggressive moves."

Instead, he held his line low, came home the winner in a car that didn't have a scratch on it and shouldered the criticism that followed.

smm2me@aol.com

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