Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – DAYTONA BEACH, FL – In the hours before his final Daytona 500 start, seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson was riding bikes with his wife and two young daughters in the infield, enjoying the sunny Florida day and the good vibes before NASCAR’s highest profile green flag flew.
On the grid before the race, Johnson’s daughters took turns sitting in the driver’s seat of their dad’s famed No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet. And then moments later, their father rolled off and into the last Daytona 500 he’s scheduled to run before retiring at the end of the season.
For most of the day Johnson kept the car up front and looked absolutely ready to contend for his third Daytona 500 trophy… only to be collected in a late-race wreck while running in the top five. Johnson was caught in a 19-car accident with 16 laps remaining in the 200-lap race – a race won for the second consecutive time by Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin.
The accident eliminated or severely handicapped a handful of the afternoon’s lead cars – from Johnson, Brad Keselowski, Martin Truex Jr. and Kurt Busch who were running up front at the time to Aric Almirola, Bubba Wallace and Alex Bowman, who were actually able to make repairs and continue, albeit no longer as true race contenders.
Johnson drove his dinged-up famed No. 48 Chevrolet to the pits immediately after the accident, but the team opted to call it night after surveying the damage.
“It’s been really a cool race to be a part of,” said Johnson, who won the Daytona 500 pole position in his first try in 2002 and then won NASCAR’s most celebrated race in both 2006 and 2013.
“You only dream of racing in races like this as a kid.”
Encouraged by his strong showing – he earned points in both stages of the race and ran as high as third place and led three laps – Johnson was obviously frustrated not to have an outcome that matched his good work.
“That No. 22 car (Joey Logano) had been pretty aggressive all day long. I just felt like it was a matter of time before his pushes were a little much and it looks like that was the case there. Our Ally Chevy was really strong. I hate that we were tore up in it.
“I’m really excited about the races ahead of us. [Crew chief] Cliff Daniels did a great job leading this team, full support from Hendrick Motorsports, my family, my friends, my fans. I’m just very thankful for all of that.
“We didn’t get to Victory Lane today, but I’m ready to get to Vegas [for the next race on Sunday] and get to work out there.”
Johnson conceded, however, that the Daytona 500 has always held a special place in his heart. An off-road racer from California, Johnson has been candid and grateful for the opportunity NASCAR has presented him and what the opportunity to be a multi-time Daytona 500 champion has meant to his career.
“For me, it’s so far away from San Diego and one of the few races that was on television,’’ Johnson said of the 500. “I remember watching this race with my father and grandfather. Really didn’t think I’d ever end up here, so when I came up as a teen wondering if I’d ever get the chance to race on this track, the intensity of it all just kicked in.
“Outside of the car [it was emotional]” he said, “Inside the car, that’s my space and I’m perfectly happy and content with the decision I made.”