STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Jimmie Johnson won the Daytona 500 yesterday, only his second career victory. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: It was his second win at Daytona.] And he made it past Danica Patrick, the first woman to ever win the pole position with the fastest qualifying time. She finished eighth. NPR's Mike Pesca was at the race.
MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: Though the Daytona 500 is called the Super Bowl of racing, there are a few differences. For instance, the Daytona 500 marks the start of the NASCAR, season not the end. And during the football Super Bowl, Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco told teamates he'd come off the sidelines and tackle an opponent who broke a big run on the last play.
But no member of Jimmie Johnson's crew was contemplating tackling a Chevy going 200 miles per hour on Daytona's final lap. No. Here's what the Johnson's crew was saying as their man led in the 497th mile.
EARL BARBAN: One back to the 16, one back to the 10. The 88 is about half a groove higer than them two. Just keep using them mirrors.
PESCA: Johnson drove impressively when it counted, and competently at the end. It was enough, in a race that saw Danica Patrick cede the lead before a lap was out, but for a time take it back, to her gratification.
DANICA PATRICK: Honestly, when I say I wanted to lead at some point, it was just because I was disappointed that I didn't do it off bat like I though I should have.
PESCA: Thirty-one laps in, Kyle Busch nudged Kasey Kahne, who swerved and triggered a nine-car crash.
(SOUNDBITE OF CRASH)
PESCA: As the crew of Jamie MccMurray, who you're hearing here, worked franticly to replace the fenders and side panels of the number one car, the rest of the racers rode on. Riding rim, as they say, which means a single file line hugging the top of the speedway. Time was, cars would flock to the lowest line in the track here, but the drivers now feel that these cars operate better on the highest portions of this track.
One by one, at top speed, sounds like this...
(SOUNDBITE OF RACE CARS)
PESCA: So who would make a move? It had to happen. A line of cars drafting off each other necessarily means no lead changes. Though there was drama. For instance, with 24 laps to go, Jeff Burton made the acquaintance of the wall on the front stretch.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: If you want to bring it straight, the guys will meet you right there.
JEFF BURTON: Yeah. I'm going to have to. Man, it did hit really hard. It hit really hard.
PESCA: The race was seven-eighths over and still no one was veering off the upper rim. The announcers on the Motor Racing Network were getting antsy.
(SOUNDBITE OF BROADCAST)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: They've been cautious. They have been patient for the most part. But patience has got to start wearing thin here shortly.
PESCA: Finally, one driver broke from the pack.
(SOUNDBITE OF BROADCAST)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The bottom of the lane is open. Here comes Jimmie Johnson. He's got the lead out of turn two.
RUSTY WALLACE: The freight train is rollin' on the bottom side of the racetrack and up front the engine is Jimmie Johnson.
PESCA: Two by two racing, Jimmie Johnson gunning at Brad Keselowski, claiming the lead, holding it through a wreck on lap 199. Johnson was now a two-time Daytona winner. After the race he reflected.
JIMMIE JOHNSON: I was an interesting race, learned a lot through the course of the race.
PESCA: Johnson's lesson, he said, was a practical one about his 48 car on this track and an intangible one about his crew's perseverance. Unspoken was the revelation about Danica Patrick, who lived up to the hype as the first woman ever with a top 10 Daytona finish, thus establishing herself as a very real threat for the future. Mike Pesca, NPR News.