DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — It's hard to have a handsdown, class-of-the field car in a restrictor-plate race, but don't tell Jimmie Johnson, who dominated Daytona Saturday night in uncharacteristically decisive fashion — and reached another milestone at the Birthplace of Speed.
In a wild race that featured two massive wrecks on the last lap alone, Johnson beat Tony Stewart to the finish line in the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway to record the first season sweep of NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races at the 2.5-mile tri-oval since Bobby Allison accomplished the feat in 1982.
As Johnson crossed the line at the end of a green-whitecheckered- flag finish, the second of the two multicar accidents erupted behind him. Kevin Harvick stayed in front of the melee to run third, followed by Clint Bowyer and Michael Waltrip.
"Glad I was ahead of all the chaos," said a relieved Stewart, who rode in the back for much of the evening before making his move to the front in the closing laps.
Johnson was ahead of the chaos, too, and above the fray - - head-and-shoulders above it. Driving a No. 48 Chevrolet SS nicknamed "White Lightning" for its blue-on-white Lowe's paint scheme, Johnson led 94 of 161 laps and executed key restarts flawlessly as the leader late in the race.
The victory was Johnson's fourth of the season — tying Matt Kenseth for most in the series — and the 64th of his career. He leads second-place Bowyer by 49 points in the series standings with eight races left before the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup field is set at Richmond.
"Had a great horse to ride; got White Lightning in Victory Lane," Johnson said after climbing from the car. "It's tough to [dominate] at a plate track. Especially with how tight the rules are. I think I showed strength early, and a lot of guys were willing to work with me and help me through situations.
"I don't know if I really made a bad move tonight, so I'm pretty proud of that."
Johnson was doubly proud to join Allison, Fireball Roberts, Cale Yarborough and LeeRoy Yarbrough as the only drivers to sweep both Sprint Cup races at Daytona in a single season.
"Gosh, growing up in Southern California and watching Bobby Allison, and I remember where I was the day [Bobby's son] Davey passed away (after a 1993 helicopter crash at Talladega)," Johnson said. "That's how much the Allison family meant to me.
"I always thought it was great to watch Bobby and Davey race, and to do anything Bobby has done is pretty special."
The five-time champion led the field to the restart on Lap 133 and stayed in the top spot until a wild six-car crash near the entry to the tri-oval on Lap 149 stacked two-thirds of the field and wrecked the cars of Denny Hamlin (who slammed nose-first into the frontstretch wall), Jeff Gordon, Matt Kenseth, AJ Allmendinger, Dave Blaney and David Reutimann.
The accident stopped the race for eight minutes, 53 seconds while track workers picked up the debris. Johnson led the field to another restart on Lap 154 and two laps later, Ambrose, running third, pinballed off Johnson's No. 48 car and knocked the No. 5 Chevrolet of Kasey Kahne into the inside backstretch wall to cause the race's sixth caution.
That set up the green-white-checkered finish that took the race one lap past its scheduled distance of 160 laps.
Harvick, who thought he was in excellent position for the final restart, was clearly disappointed with his third-place run.
"Yeah, we didn't win," said Harvick, who restarted from the inside lane, beside Johnson and with Bowyer behind him, for the two-lap dash to the finish. "That was our expectation coming here, and that's the expectation going to the superspeedway tracks … I'm kind of disappointed just for the fact that I felt like we were in the right position.
"I felt like the 15 (Bowyer) was going to be a really good pusher, based on the restart before… I'm a little disappointed because I really felt like we were in the right spot, but it's hard to complain."
Johnson had the dominant car, but attrition also helped him, starting with a collision that hobbled four strong cars on Lap 98. The No. 56 Toyota of Martin Truex Jr. got loose off Turn 4 and turned sideways, triggering a wreck that collected the cars of Denny Hamlin, Juan Pablo Montoya and Kyle Busch. The crash ended the winning chances of all but Busch, whose team effected quick repairs to the nose of the No. 18 Camry on pit road.
Busch rallied to finish 12th despite being a victim of the last-lap crash, but Truex, who cracked the top 10 in points after winning at Sonoma to break a 218-race drought, fell out of the race in 41st place and dropped back out of the top 10.
So did Joey Logano, who blew a tire in Turn 2 on Lap 70 and slammed into the outside wall. A week after working his way into the 10th spot in the standings, Logano was out again after being credited with a 40th-place result.
Notes: Carl Edwards was a victim of the first wreck on the last lap, finishing 29th and dropping to third in the standings, 71 points behind Johnson … Kurt Busch ran sixth and cracked the top 10 in points for the first time this season. He's currently ninth, 157 points behind Johnson … Danica Patrick ran as high as second after the 100-lap mark but was part of the crash near the finish line on the last lap. She finished 14th … Stewart regained the six positions in the standings he lost over the past two weeks. He's now 10th in points, the last position that guarantees a spot in the Chase.
May be time for Denny Hamlin to look at the big picture
Sometimes discretion really is the better part of valor.
And in Denny Hamlin's case, discretion means getting out of the race car and sitting out the rest of the season.
As I type these words, I'm sitting in the press box at Daytona International Speedway, some 50 feet above the race track. I can look toward Turn 4 and see the mark on the wall where Hamlin's Toyota slammed nose-first into the SAFER barrier short of the start/finish line.
If the wreck was a jarring impact for Hamlin, it was like a punch in the gut for those of us who watched it happen. The angle of the collision reminded us of the wreck he suffered at Fontana, Calif., in late March, the wreck that kept him out of action with a broken back for more than a month.
Hamlin is a valiant warrior. We all remember 2010, when he came back from knee surgery in record time and damn near won the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship. When he said he still hoped to make the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup this year after missing four races because of a fractured vertebra, we took him seriously.
But now, after two high-speed accidents in Saturday night's Coke Zero 400 at Daytona, it's time for Hamlin to realize that chasing the Chase is nothing more than a fool's errand. It's time for Hamlin to realize that distancing himself from racing and its potential hazards may well be the best medicine in the short term.
I don't say this lightly. And I don't presume to offer a medical opinion. I know how difficult it is for a driver — any driver — to give up a ride, even temporarily. The image of Dale Earnhardt trying to drive with a broken collarbone and a dislocated sternum in the 1996 Brickyard 400, only to exit the car with tears in his eyes six laps into the race, is etched indelibly in our collective memory.
Enough is enough. Hamlin has crashed out of three of the last six races, taking shots that made us cringe. He took a hard hit June 30 at Kentucky, arrived at the infield care center hunched over on a golf cart and had to be cleared medically before testing at Indianapolis the following day.
A blown tire led to a hard impact June 2 at Dover, and though Hamlin finished on the lead lap June 23 at Sonoma, he slammed into the Turn 10 tire barriers in practice and got knocked off course when Tony Stewart wheel-hopped into Turn 4 in the race itself.
There may be a message here, and Hamlin might do well to heed it. During his four-race hiatus in April, Hamlin told us that the Fontana wreck had aggravated a chronic problem with bulging discs and that those were more painful than the compression fracture itself.
Hamlin added that he would contemplate surgery for the bulging discs, if and when his Chase hopes were lost.
"I'm at the point now where if they don't let me back in the car in a timely fashion, where I'm going to be racing for nothing for the rest of the year, I'd just as soon do it now and get it over with and come back next year strong and ready to go," Hamlin said during a promotional visit to a Washington, D.C., hair salon in April.
It's time for Hamlin to revisit that state of mind. The Chase is a long shot. To get there, Hamlin, currently 26th in the standings, would have to win two of the next eight races, leap-frog over six drivers in the standings and make up a 122-point deficit to 20th-place Paul Menard just to be eligible for the Chase as a wild card.
If the pain in Hamlin's back has abated, and surgery isn't warranted, then rest might be the best prescription. Hamlin, 32, can enjoy a long and productive future in Sprint Cup racing. Why risk it?
Hamlin already has earned his red badge of courage. He's an intense, talented competitor with nothing to prove. This year, he also has nothing to win. So why not take the rest of the season off and return to racing next year renewed and rejuvenated.
Though it's antithetical to an athlete's makeup, sometimes the greatest wisdom is knowing when to quit, and the most courageous decision is not to compete when the risks outweigh the potential rewards.
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