Kevin Liles-USA TODAY Sports
Recapping the Daytona 500 and three key takeaways from the "Great American Race."
1) Jimmie Johnson's victory is a surprise
In its purest sense, Jimmie Johnson's Daytona 500 victory wasn't a complete surprise. After all, how could it be, considering Johnson has five Sprint Cup trophies on his mantel and has won every major there is to win in NASCAR?
The truth is, with the exception of his lone win in 2006, the Daytona 500 race isn't where Johnson is at his best. In the six years between victories, Johnson's best result was 27th and his average finish was 33.5. Those aren't numbers befitting arguably the greatest driver of his era.
And that lack of success accompanied with continued poor luck, where the No. 48 car would often end up in the garage with crumpled fenders, makes it easy to understand why Johnson's affinity for plate racing was wearing thin.
It also explains why he was overlooked heading into race day and why his name was far down the list of drivers who could win the 55th edition of the "Great American Race."
Yet, there was Johnson on Sunday, surviving the carnage that took out heavyweights Tony Stewart and Kevin Harvick and the engine woes that befuddled the Toyota teams. And of course, the apparent divine force that seemed to be guiding Danica Patrick to what would have been a storybook victory.
And when the smoke cleared and the checkered flag waved, it was Johnson once again standing above it all -- Harley J. Earl Trophy in hand.
2) Engine problems continue to haunt Joe Gibbs Racing
It didn't take long for defending Daytona 500 champion Matt Kenseth to assert himself as the dominant driver on Sunday. The newest driver for Joe Gibbs Racing took the lead for the first time on Lap 37 and led 86 of the next 112 laps. And at one point, as Kenseth was leading and his two teammates, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch, running right behind, JGR seemed assured of claiming its second Daytona 500 victory.
Then the dream went up in a puff of smoke -- literally -- as first Kenseth and shortly thereafter Busch headed to the garage with engine failures. The same issue that plagued JGR in 2012 had again reared its ugly head and with it, all the promise and hope that had accumulated over the offseason faded away in the Daytona.
Without a doubt, the biggest question about JGR was not whether its three drivers can win races and contend for the title -- all certainly are capable. No, it was whether the issue of continued blown motors and malfunctioning parts had been resolved.
One race into the season and the answer is a resounding no.
3) A big day for the underdogs
With the way restrictor-plate racing often weeds out the field due to the frequency of multi-car accidents, it's not unusual to see a driver from a small team sneak his or her way up the running order.
That was the case Sunday, as Regan Smith (finished seventh), Michael McDowell (ninth) and J.J Yeley (10th) used strategy, guile and a little bit of luck to post top 10 finishes in the Daytona 500.
For those that drive for teams with little funding and even fewer resources, a top 10 finish can be seen as the equivalent of a win. And for McDowell and Yeley, the result was particularly sweet, as neither gets to run full races too often due to their team's tendencies to use the maligned practice of starting-and-parking.
Now, armed with a high finish and the payday that goes along with it, the door to compete with greater regularity has been opened just a tinge more.
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