On a gray, misty, foggy Sunday afternoon, if you didn't like the leader of the Daytona 500, all you had to do was wait a minute. It would change.
A zany Daytona 500 didn't have any problems with bump drafting (although it had plenty of bumping), as a record 18 cars took turns leading the race. The leader when the race finished was thought to be finished because he didn't have his leader. In the end, it was simple: Great American Race No. 48 was won by No. 48.
Jimmie Johnson, whose crew chief Chad Knaus was ejected from Daytona International Speedway a week ago for using an illegal part, drove his Lowe's Chevrolet to his first Daytona 500 victory in a green-white-checkered finish before an estimated crowd of 175,000.
"I've got so much pride in my race team, what we have accomplished today with the circumstances we've been through," said Johnson, who gave Hendrick Motorsports its sixth Daytona 500 victory and second in a row after Jeff Gordon's third win last year. "This is a well-prepared team, a team that was very hungry and wanted to make a statement today."
The 30-year-old Californian earned his 19th -- and biggest (worth $1,505,124) -- career victory by staying clear of trouble (11 caution flags for 39 laps) and getting excellent pit stops. Johnson has finished in the top five in points each of his four previous seasons, but he has been dogged by Knaus' repeated rules violations as well as some wreck-causing driving last year.
"There's been a lot of hating on the 48 team over the last year," he said. "There was a lot of criticism on this team -- and then what took place this week. We were wrong in qualifying (when Knaus illegally altered the rear window to gain speed). We came back through all of that and won the Daytona 500."
The No. 48 team's lead engineer, Darian Grubb, a 30-year-old from Floyd, Va., took over crew chief duties for Knaus, who watched from his home in Charlotte, N.C., as one of the millions viewing on television. Johnson said Knaus wasn't in communication with the team throughout the race, but he did fax a note to his team beforehand.
"I just read something that was from Chad to the crew, just telling them to do their best job," said Johnson. "Something from his side saying, 'I believe in you guys, I've trained you well, do your job today.' And everybody did."
Johnson led the race four times for 24 of its 203 laps around the 2.5-mile tri-oval, taking the lead for the final time on lap 187 just before a caution came out for a crash by Kurt Busch. Hendrick teammate Brian Vickers was in the lead when Newman led a charge on the top groove.
"I got up to block it (and it) just edged me ahead of Brian before the caution came out," said Johnson. "I could control the race at that point."
Newman passed Vickers for second and was stalking Johnson with four laps left when another caution came out to set up the two-lap green-white-checkered finale.
Johnson was leading Newman, Casey Mears, Elliott Sadler (who finished fourth), Dale Earnhardt Jr. (who led the most laps with 32 and finished eighth) while Tony Stewart was still threatening to be part of the showdown in ninth place.
But the top three broke away after the first lap, and only Newman had a chance to pass. Newman, who led 23 laps and has been a rival of Johnson since they entered Nextel Cup together in 2002, tried to take Johnson on the outside as the end of the superstretch. Johnson blocked the move and Newman got no help from Mears, who stayed behind Johnson. Johnson would not have been caught as he swooped around the 33-degree Turn Four, and the race ended when a caution flag waved for Greg Biffle's accident back in the pack. NASCAR officials needed to consult videotapes of the finish before awarding Mears second and Newman third.
The drivers who spent the offseason getting used to new surroundings had starring roles in an exciting race.
Mears was a giddy second-place finisher in the No. 42 Dodge, which last year was occupied by Jamie McMurray. McMurray, who was very strong before Jeff Burton helped knock him out of the race (and to a 37th-place finish) with five laps left, drove the No. 26 Roush Racing Ford, whose team was headed by Kurt Busch last year. Busch also ran near the front of the pack all day in the No. 2 Ford but went from sixth to 38th after McMurray banged into him and sent him out of control (and his bumper flying over the fence) on lap 187. Busch, who left Roush Racing on bad terms last year, worked very well with new teammate Newman, who had an awful relationship with Rusty Wallace.
Stewart, whose comments about bump drafting after last week's Bud Shootout helped bring about NASCAR rule changes enacted to curb aggressive driving in general, ironically was involved in several scrapes before finishing fifth. His No. 20 Chevy and Jeff Gordon's No. 24 Chevy both hit the wall in Turn Two after the pair touched and both spent the rest of the race working their way back through the field as they tried to overcome ensuing handling problems. Gordon finished 26th.
Stewart had an extended battle with Matt Kenseth (28 laps led) midway through the race after which Stewart was sent to the back of the pack and Kenseth was black-flagged. Stewart and Kyle Busch banged back and forth with six laps to go, with Kyle Busch being sent to the back of the pack and a 23rd-place finish.
Johnson was to return for a winner's ceremony this morning at Daytona International Speedway, where, as is the custom, his No. 48 will remain on display until Daytona 500 No. 49.