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As focused as Jimmie Johnson and the Team Lowe’s Racing were on just getting to the finish line first during Saturday’s night’s traditional, midsummer 400-mile NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway – something the five-time Sprint Cup champion and his team executed to perfection – it came as a total surprise to Johnson that it was yet another historic achievement in a career filled with racing milestones.
Johnson and his No. 48 Lowe’s “Dover White” Chevrolet SS, dubbed “White Lightning,” led four times for a race-high 94 laps en route to his first career victory in NASCAR’s July classic at the 2.5-mile superspeedway. It made Johnson, who also won the season-opening Daytona 500 for the second time in his illustrious career, the first driver since Bobby Allison in 1982 to sweep both Daytona Sprint Cup events in the same year.
“That is amazing,” Johnson said in victory lane after his 64th career Sprint Cup victory, his fourth of the season and his third at Daytona. “Gosh, I remember being in Southern California watching Bobby Allison. I remember where I was the day Davey (Allison) passed away. That is how much the Allison family meant to me. I always thought it was so great to watch Bobby and Davey race. To tie anything that Bobby has done is pretty special. I’m very happy tonight.”
As much as Johnson’s Daytona 500 victory in February was an exercise in patience, having taken the lead just 10 laps from the finish after leading just seven laps to that point, tonight’s march to the checkered flag was as close to an exercise in total domination as can be executed in a restrictor-plate race.
“That is tough to do at a plate track, especially with how tight the rules are,” said Johnson, who started eighth on the grid, first took the lead on lap 31 of tonight’s scheduled 160-lap event that was extended one lap by a green-white-checkered finish, and held the point for 94 of the final 130 laps altogether. “I think I showed strength early and a lot of the guys knew that and were willing to work with me and kind of help me through situations, which is great. I don’t know if I really made a bad move tonight. I’m pretty proud of that. Had a great horse to ride – got ‘White Lightning’ to victory lane, which I’m very proud of. I want to thank Lowe’s and all the employees at Lowe’s for their dedication and support of our race team. Chevrolet, KOBALT Tools, Gatorade, Sprint for their support of our series, as well, and I want to give my daughter an early birthday wish. Her birthday is tomorrow – 3, already. Time is flying, but just an awesome night tonight.”
Johnson moved into the lead for good on a fuel-only pit stop under caution with 30 laps to go. He had little problem holding off the field on a pair of late-race restarts – the first on lap 154, the second on lap 160 – and took the checkered flag as a huge, multi-car accident unfolded behind him. It was a most satisfying return trip to victory lane after frustrating results the past three weekends.
“Yeah, we have been knocking on the door for sure,” he said. “It’s great to get ‘White Lightning’ to victory lane. I also want to wish everybody a happy Fourth of July and thank all the men and women who have fought for our country for our independence. That was fun tonight.”
Tony Stewart finished .107 of a second behind Johnson in the runner-up spot, while Kevin Harvick, Clint Bowyer and Michael Waltrip rounded out the top-five. Kurt Busch, Jamie McMurray, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Casey Mears and Ryan Newman comprised the remainder of the top-10.
There were six caution periods for 27 laps, with nine drivers failing to finish the 161-lap race, which was extended one lap by a green-white-checkered finish.
With round 18 of 36 complete, Johnson continues to lead the Hendrick Motorsports contingent and the rest of the NASCAR field in the championship point standings. His 658 points give him a 49-point lead over second-place Clint Bowyer and a 165-point lead over 11th-place Martin Truex Jr. Earnhardt occupies fifth with 548 points, 110 out of first and 55 ahead of 11th. Kahne is 12th with 490 points, 168 out of first and nine points behind 10th. Gordon is 14th with 487 points, 171 out of first and 12 points behind 10th.
Eight races remain before the 12-driver, 10-race Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup begins Sept. 15 at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Ill. Only the top-10 in points are locked into the Chase. Positions 11 and 12 in the Chase are wild cards, awarded to the two drivers between 11th and 20th in points with the most wins. In the event of multiple drivers having the same number of wins, a driver’s point standing serves as the tiebreaker.
Truex and Kahne are the only drivers between 11th and 20th in points with a victory, so they hold the first and second wild-card spots, respectively.
The next event on the Sprint Cup schedule is the Camping World RV Sales 301 on Sunday, July 14 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon. The race starts at 1 p.m. EDT, with live coverage provided by TNT beginning with its pre-race show at noon.