DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — A day after a horrific crash took the focus away from racing and threatened to turn NASCAR’s season-opening showcase, the Daytona 500, into an afterthought, Danica Patrick did what she does best. She put the focus right back on her.
While Jimmie Johnson made a statement with a victory in the 55th Daytona 500, Patrick made history by becoming the first woman to lead a lap in a Sprint Cup race.
Johnson, who outraced the field in his No. 48 Chevrolet after a late caution, showed he could be the driver to beat for the title this year with his victory. And Dale Earnhardt Jr. left a similar impression, finishing a strong second.
Johnson collected $1.585 million for winning his second Daytona 500 title.
“It is just awesome, there’s no other way to describe it,” he said. “Just a strong race car. 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.”
Sunday might have been Johnson’s day, but this was surely Patrick’s week. She had created headlines all week after becoming the first woman to start from the pole in the premier Sprint Cup series, and she recorded another milestone when she led twice for a total of five laps in the 200-lap race on the way to finishing eighth, another record for a woman.
Not that Patrick was overly impressed.
“I think a stat that I found more interesting is only 13 people, including me now, have led Indy and Daytona,” said Patrick, who became the first woman to lead the Indianapolis 500, in 2005. “I thought that was a much cooler stat for me.”
Indeed, it is perhaps more significant that Patrick showed Sunday that she could race with the best in NASCAR, lap for lap. She was in the top 10 all day.
“She’s going to make a lot of history all year long,” Earnhardt said.
Patrick said she was actually disappointed with the finish; she was third going into the last lap but got shuffled back in the final dash to the checkered flag.
As it turned out, Patrick was one of only three drivers to stay with the leaders all race long, joining Johnson and Greg Biffle of Vancouver, Wash., who finished in sixth place.
Earlier Sunday, the talk was still focused on a last-lap crash in the Nationwide Series race on Saturday, when Kyle Larson’s race car went airborne and crashed into the catch-fence, sending debris into the stands. There were 28 injuries, but only two people remained hospitalized Sunday. Both were in stable condition.
That promising medical report allowed racing, and Patrick, to once again become the story. Patrick even succeeded in taking some of the focus off what was largely a questionable debut by the new Gen-6 race cars. The race cars were designed to look more like showroom models, but there was very little green-flag passing for the lead because most drivers were content to drive in single-file for much of the race.
Even though drivers were unwilling to gamble, there were a few multi-car crashes that helped thin the field of contenders.
Kevin Harvick and Tony Stewart were collected in a nine-car crash when Enumclaw’s Kasey Kahne had his No. 5 Chevrolet tapped from behind by Kyle Busch as the cars raced in a close pack.
Nine more cars were part of a crash with 63 laps to go, including Carl Edwards.