Jimmie Johnson won his second Daytona 500 on Sunday, holding off Dale Earnhardt Jr. to score the 61st victory of his career.
For Johnson, though, it wasn't a dominating performance. Instead, Johnson won NASCAR's version of Survivor.
Early in the race, the day seemed as though it would belong to Matt Kenseth.
Kenseth, who started 12th, took the lead from Jeff Gordon on lap 38 after fighting his way through the field. Kenseth took the lead just after a caution for a multi-car crash on lap 32 that eliminated many favorites, including Tony Stewart, Kasey Kahne and Kevin Harvick. The crash started when Kyle Busch hit Kahne, sending him spinning.
"The guys in front of me were all checking up," Kahne said. "I was trying not to run over Jeff [Gordon], and I could feel a lot of momentum right there, so I was trying hard not to run over Jeff. Kyle [Busch] was probably feeling the same momentum from behind and hit me, which shot me to the infield. There were a lot of cars close together."
While Kahne, Stewart and Harvick were forced to the garage, Brad Keselowski, who also sustained damage, and Busch were able to continue.
Kenseth led the field, which soon formed a single line. Kenseth, in his first points race with Joe Gibbs Racing, led the field through two rounds of pit stops: first, during a caution period for debris, and the second during a round of green flag stops. During green flag stops, Danica Patrick -- who made history as the first female Daytona 500 polesitter -- led laps under green-flag conditions, becoming the first woman to accomplish that feat.
By lap 146, Kenseth was leading a Joe Gibbs Racing trio at the front. Shortly after, however, Kenseth's day came to an abrupt end. On lap 149, Kenseth was forced to pit road with a severe vibration. A lap later, teammate Busch also suffered mechanical failure. Both cars were soon forced to park. That left the final Joe Gibbs Racing driver, Denny Hamlin, in the lead with Michael Waltrip Racing driver Martin Truex Jr. in second.
"It's disappointing, obviously, but it's also really encouraging," Kenseth said. "I thought we did all the right things. We had a great pit stop right there at the end -- I thought [crew chief] Jason [Ratcliff] had a great pit stop there at the end when we needed it. He just had a great strategy. Our Toyota was really fast. We had all the right things -- we just didn't make it to the end. Those are things we can fix."
During the final round of pit stops under green that started on lap 173, Keselowski, wheeling a battered Ford, suddenly appeared in the lead.
The final caution came with less than 10 laps to go. On the restart, it became a battle between Johnson and Keselowski. With Johnson on the low side and Keselowski on the high side, the duo traded the top spot as the laps wound down. Behind them, Patrick, Greg Biffle, Earnhardt Jr. and Hamlin shuffled to find position.
On the final lap, as two cars tangled in turn two behind them, Keselowski and Johnson battled to the line. When the dust settled, Johnson scored the victory with his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Earnhardt Jr. second.
"Things just worked out well for me coming to the caution," Johnson said. "The No. 2 [Keselowski] got a big push and was way out and kind of falling back to the No. 16 [Biffle]. My lane was bunched up tight and helped me surge by the No. 2 at the start/finish when the caution came out. That was really the move that set things up for us," Johnson said.
"At the end, it got exciting. I was waiting for the run, and it came further back than I expected. The No. 88 [Earnhardt Jr.] got a big shove and was coming up the inside. I moved down to defend that, and we were able to get a one-two [finish] for Hendrick Motorsports. For the 48/88 shop, so very happy. There are a lot of people who put a lot of effort into these cars. I want to thank all of them."
Mark Martin was third, with Keselowski and Ryan Newman rounding out the top five.
"The high lane just had all the speed," Keselowski said. "It doesn't mean we weren't trying. It just wouldn't go down there on the bottom, and it made it real hard to pass. It wasn't for lack of effort."
Patrick, in third when the white flag waved, was shuffled back and finished eighth. Still, it was the highest finish by a woman in Daytona 500 history.
"I ran up front all day long, and we led a little," Patrick said. "We stayed in the top 10 all day pretty much. We had nice pit stops by the GoDaddy crew, the car was fast and it's always a little frustrating when you come through and you're top three on that last lap. I will learn more for next time.
"I really didn't feel like I had a great grasp as to how do you go win this race. I hadn't wrapped my head around exactly how that was going to happen. I kept thinking about it out there, because for the most part, I was running half throttle for most of the race running in the line. I'll know better for next time and for Talladega."
The win for Johnson came in his 400th start and was somewhat of a redemption for the five-time champion. In last year's Daytona 500, Johnson was swept up in a multi-car crash just after completing a single lap.
"There is no other way to start the season than to win the Daytona 500," Johnson said. "I'm a very lucky man to have won it twice. ... Before I go, I just want to send my thoughts and prayers out to everyone that was injured yesterday, and I hope they are healing up and doing well."