Monday morning NASCAR recap: Johnson sends reverberating message with historic Daytona win

Tom Pennington

With his win in the Coke Zero 400, Jimmie Johnson became the first driver in 31 years to complete the Daytona sweep. But the victory also reaffirmed that he alone is the driver to beat for this year’s championship.

A common phrase frequently uttered is how the draft is a great equalizer. This explains why in recent years we have seen one surprise winner after another roll into Victory Lanes at Daytona and Talladega.

And why restrictor-plate races have become wide-open, pick a name out of hat, just about anyone can win affairs.

However, there was no parity Saturday night. It was Johnson and then everyone else. He led 94 of 161 laps and was in complete control from beginning to end in a way that isn't supposed to happen at Daytona.

It was as dominant of a win on a plate track as any in recent memory.

"From a laps-led standpoint, this has to be the most dominant performance we've had on a plate track," Johnson said following 64th career victory. "Truthfully, I think this Gen-6 car and the style of drafting required to be successful in this car fits my style a lot more."

The results this season certainly support the above statement. For someone who was long seen as not the best at Daytona or Talladega, Johnson has eradicated that belief. Along with his win in the Daytona 500 and his victory Saturday night, Johnson also placed fifth at Talladega in May. On the year, he's the only driver to finish in the top 10 in all three races involving restrictor-plates.

Additionally, Johnson is now the first driver in 31 years to sweep both events at Daytona in the same calendar year and just the fifth person overall to accomplish such a feat. The last to do so was Bobby Allison in 1982, a driver who Johnson holds in high regard.

"To do anything that Bobby has done is really, really special," Johnson said.

But there was more than just historical context to Johnson's Daytona victory. For the second time this season, he has won following a race where he committed a blunder late that cost him a certain victory.

The first occurrence was at Pocono in June where Johnson won from the pole and led all but 32 laps. This followed his much-publicized mistake the week before at Dover, which saw him get black-flagged for jumping a restart with 19 laps to go. Then last week at Kentucky he again had an issue on a late-race restart, which resulted in him spinning himself out with a handful of laps remaining.

The continued gaffes committed on restarts eroded some of Johnson's mystique that he is infallible.

But each time there was a tinge of lingering doubt that Johnson isn't the same driver who rolled to an unprecedented five consecutive championships from 2006-2010, he responded accordingly.

Of course, Johnson doesn't see the correlation. From his perspective, every race weekend is a single entity separate from the others.

"Last weekend didn't turn out," Johnson said. "Every race team in the garage area leaves the track with could have, would have, should haves, and we've had a couple of those, but we don't let it linger, we don't let it last.

"There's more in that than there is us having a statement or something to prove because something got away from us the week before. It's more about the team, and we know what we're capable of when we go out and do our jobs."

As if any further reminders were needed that Johnson is still the same driver who in a five-year span obliterated the NASCAR record book, all one has to do is look at the current standings.

With eight races remaining in the regular season, Johnson owns four victories and even more imposing, has a 49-point lead over second-place Clint Bowyer. Johnson's lead is such that he could sit out next week's race at New Hampshire and still maintain his position as the points leader.

And if there is a statement that Johnson wants made in the aftermath of his historic Daytona victory, it's a fairly straightforward one.

"What we've done over the course of the year, leading the points like we have with a big margin, I think probably sends the biggest message that we're buttoned up and ready and in a position to win a sixth championship," Johnson said.

There is little doubt that throughout the garage that message has been received loud and clear.

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