Johnson wins while Waltrip wrecks at Daytona
When Jimmie Johnson arrived at Daytona International Speedway, he admitted a fear of forgetting how to drive during NASCAR’s offseason.
A 13th-place finish in last week’s exhibition Budweiser Shootout didn’t put his mind at ease.
Winning a door-to-door battle with Kevin Harvick in the first of Thursday’s two Daytona 500 qualifying races certainly helped.
The four-time defending NASCAR champion nipped Harvick by .005 seconds in a thrilling finish to earn a second-row starting spot in Sunday’s season opener. He’s felt better about his restrictor-plate racing skills after edging Harvick, but will still take a good deal of doubt into NASCAR’s version of the Super Bowl.
“After the Shootout, I ran well at the start, then we started fading. Inside the car, I was just wondering if I lost my touch with restrictor plate racing,” Johnson said. “Stuff goes on in my head. Even though we won … I don’t win a lot on plate tracks, so I still feel like I’m learning. Today is a big step in that direction.”
Johnson won his qualifying race in his backup car and needing pit strategy to get to the front. He stayed on the track when almost everyone else pitted for the final time. Although he inherited the lead, he had Harvick and Clint Boywer—teammates at Richard Childress Racing—and feisty Kyle Busch behind him trying to grab the win away.
Crew chief Chad Knaus settled in for the show, confident the most dominant driver in NASCAR could finish the job.
“We were going to go for the win. Whether that was him putting himself in a position to go for it, or something we had to do to make it happen,” Knaus said. “I think he did a fantastic job of blocking those guys. He had two teammates behind him and a very aggressive Kyle Busch behind him, and he was able to hold them off.
“I think that speaks volumes about how good the car is and what a good restrictor plate racer Jimmie is.”
Far behind the leaders, Johnson’s good friend Max Papis tearfully qualified for his first Daytona 500. The former sports-car star joined Michael McDowell as the two drivers to race their way into Sunday’s 43-car field.
“I don’t want to be called anymore the ‘road course racer,’ “ Papis said. “I want to be called ‘Mad Max, the NASCAR racer.”
McDowell said earning the start will help Prism Motorsports stay on the track this season. Although the team plans on running all year, it needs sponsorship to compete and just making Sunday’s race is a payday that can carry them for at least a few weeks.
“This is the biggest race of the season for us,” McDowell said.
Their success came at the expense of Michael Waltrip, who was planning to make the final Daytona 500 start of his career.
But Waltrip, a two-time Daytona 500 winner, crashed late in the first qualifying race to severely jeopardize his chances of making the field.
“Just highs and lows,” he said after. “Just Daytona, that’s what it means to me. The best of times and the worst of times. So I can live with it.”
Waltrip snapped a 462-race losing streak by winning his first Daytona 500 in 2001—the same day team owner Dale Earnhardt was killed in a last-lap accident. Waltrip’s fate in Sunday’s race would not be known until after the second qualifying race: If Bobby Labonte or Scott Speed raced their way into the 500, Waltrip would earn a spot in the field based on his speed in time trials.