The message, Jimmie Johnson said after his dominant victory Saturday night at Daytona, wasn’t significant. There’s only one restrictor-plate race in the 10-race Chase so no need to read too much into his run.
When one adds Johnson’s performance with what he’s done in recent weeks, though, the message becomes clearer. His reign could resume.
Johnson led the final 31 laps of the Coke Zero 400 to score his fourth victory of the season, tying Matt Kenseth for series-high honors. He became the first driver since Bobby Allison in 1982 to sweep both Daytona races in the same season.
Also, Johnson’s points lead grew to 49. With 48 the most points that can be earned in a race, Johnson is a full race ahead of the rest of the field with eight races left until the Chase begins.
“What we’ve done over the course of the year, leading the points with the big margin, probably sends the biggest margin that we’re buttoned up and ready to win a sixth championship,’’ Johnson said.
While Johnson cruised, his competitors didn’t have as much good fortune. Accidents ruined the night for several drivers including Matt Kenseth, Denny Hamlin, Kasey Kahne Joey Logano and Martin Truex Jr.
Those that remained didn’t have anything for Johnson. Tony Stewart finished second with Kevin Harvick, Clint Bowyer and Michael Waltrip completing the top five. Kurt Busch was sixth and followed by Jamie McMurray, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Casey Mears and Ryan Newman.
Few can match what Johnson has done lately. He led a race-high 94 of 161 laps Saturday, marking the third time in the last five races he’s led the most laps. He’s won two of those races.
The five-time champion held off the field on green-white-checkered restart. Harvick started on the inside of Johnson’s car and challenged him for half a lap.
“I really thought we were in the right spot,’’ Harvick said. “I thought if I could just hold Jimmie to turn 1 that the pack would form behind us. Our line just never developed either time on the restart there with two different cars behind us. It was interesting to see how the top line would form up, and they were just able to push by and get a run off of turn 2 down the back straightaway and get by.’’
Johnson moved into the lead by turn 3 and then went high in turn 4 to block Stewart’s momentum.
Stewart couldn’t get enough of a run to make a move and took second.
As they began the last lap, David Gilliland pushed Kurt Busch on the outside line and they made a charge and appeared as if they could close on the lead group.
“We were coming,’’ said Gilliland, who pushed teammate David Ragan to the win at Talladega in May. “I was pushing Kurt, and I was hoping he would stay connected to me, but he got away from me. I felt like if we could have been connected right there and stay connected like Ragan and I did at Talladega, I feel like one of us would have won the race.’’
Busch says he’s not sure why they didn’t remain connected.
“I’m going to look to find his number, talk to him and go, ‘What did I do wrong, what could he have done better’ and really try to learn from that becauseI was that close to a restrictor-plate win,’’ Busch said.
Gilliland fell to 15th. Busch’s sixth-place finish moved him five spots into ninth in the points - the first time this season he’s been in the top 10.
Kahne’s hopes for his first Cup points win at Daytona ended on lap 156 after contact with Marcos Ambrose on the backstretch that sent Kahne’s car into the inside wall. The incident happened as Ambrose and Kahne raced for second place behind Johnson.
“Jimmie got a little loose or he just didn’t see my move coming,’’ Ambrose said. “He came down to check the spot and I was already there and he just bounced us straight into (Kahne). That’s plate racing. We’re all trying to win.’’
The contact with Kahne’s car cut the left rear tire on Ambrose’s car, forcing him to pit and lose several positions. He finished 26th.
Johnson had a different take on the incident.
“He was coming fast, biggest run I’ve seen in a lot of laps, so I moved up to block it,’’ Johnson said of Ambrose. “Kasey and those guys rolled up inside of me. As we came off of turn 2 (Ambrose) went shooting down below me. (Ambrose) made a strong move to get inside of me.’’
Johnson said he didn’t feel any contact with Ambrose’s car.
Others felt quite a bit of contact during the race. Hamlin suffered another hard hit in a crash when his car veered toward the wall. Kenseth avoided but hit Jeff Gordon. AJ Allmendinger slammed into Hamlin’s car, sending the back end of it helicoptering. Blaney rammed Allmendinger. All the drivers were evaluated and released from the infield care center. Hamlin, who finished 36th, did not talk to reporters afterward.