John­son trig­gers crash but goes on to win Clash

Chattanooga Times Free Press - - SPORTS - BY DAN GELSTON

DAY­TONA BEACH, Fla. — Jim­mie John­son’s youngest daugh­ter prays ev­ery night for Daddy to win a race. When John­son scuf­fled through the worst sea­son of his NASCAR Cup Series ca­reer, the seven-time cham­pi­onship driver felt the strain of not reach­ing vic­tory lane.

“It was putting some pres­sure on me,” John­son said.

John­son called his daugh­ter’s in­vo­ca­tion “cute to hear.”

He didn’t feel the same about crit­i­cal com­ments say­ing he was past his prime. The 43-year-old John­son tweeted “I’m far from done” in the off­sea­son, and with a risky move in the rain Sun­day at Day­tona In­ter­na­tional Speed­way, he showed there’s plenty left in his am­bi­tion tank.

John­son trig­gered a wreck that wiped out nearly the en­tire 20-car field and zipped to the lead to win the rain-short­ened Ad­vance Auto Parts Clash, an all-star ex­hi­bi­tion held in ad­vance of next Sun­day’s sea­son-open­ing Day­tona 500.

In 2018, John­son went an en­tire Cup Series sea­son with­out win­ning for the first time in his ca­reer, but a dose of ag­gres­sion put him back in vic­tory lane dur­ing the open­ing week­end of Speed­weeks. John­son’s win capped a ban­ner day for Hen­drick Mo­tor­sports af­ter two of John­son’s team­mates, Wil­liam By­ron and Alex Bow­man, locked in the front row for the Day­tona 500 ear­lier dur­ing qual­i­fy­ing.

“It’s been a pretty awe­some day,” Hen­drick said. “I hate we had the wreck there

at the end, but it’s been a re­ally good day for the team.”

John­son’s vic­tory doesn’t count in the of­fi­cial NASCAR record book, but it has to be en­cour­ag­ing as he be­gins a part­ner­ship with new crew chief Kevin Meen­der­ing and a new spon­sor­ship with Ally.

Paul Me­nard led 51 laps and con­trolled the race that was in­ter­rupted three times for rain. With more rain loom­ing, John­son dipped low and tried to side-draft Me­nard as they bat­tled for the lead. But John­son turned Me­nard and started a chain-re­ac­tion ac­ci­dent that left cars side­ways and

smok­ing be­hind the No. 48 Chevro­let.

“I looked in the mir­ror, and there were a lot of cars caught up in it,” John­son said.

The rain that ended the race hit not long af­ter the de­ci­sive move.

“I in­her­ited a great core group of guys with the 48 team,” Meen­der­ing said. “There’s a strong foun­da­tion there, and the team re­ally works well to­gether, and it jells to­gether. It’s made that tran­si­tion a lot eas­ier.”

John­son and long­time crew chief Chad Knaus were split up by Hen­drick at the end of last sea­son af­ter

win­ning those record-ty­ing seven cham­pi­onships to­gether. With Men­deer­ing, he will pick up his quest to win a Cup Series race for the first time since June 4, 2017 at Dover In­ter­na­tional Speed­way.

“We still need a points race win to say we’re back in vic­tory lane,” John­son said. “But it was a great first step to­day.”

The wreck came 55 laps into the 75-lap event, and the race was called just four laps later. Kurt Busch was sec­ond, fol­lowed by Joey Logano, Ryan Blaney and Bow­man.

Busch said team owner Chip Ganassi com­plained

to NASCAR about John­son driv­ing be­low the dou­ble-yel­low line to make the move, but John­son was not pe­nal­ized be­cause the wreck forced him that low.

“I think John­son had a le­git­i­mate run to go for the lead,” Busch said.

Me­nard was po­si­tioned to win for Wood Brothers Rac­ing only weeks af­ter the death of team founder Glen Wood. He was 93 and had been the old­est liv­ing mem­ber of the NASCAR Hall of Fame when he died last month af­ter a long ill­ness.

“I felt like it was ag­gres­sive side-draft­ing,” Me­nard said. “I got turned

to the in­side and hooked to the right, and all hell broke loose.”

John­son had been caught up in many crashes in the Clash, fail­ing to fin­ish on the lead lap in each of the seven ex­hi­bi­tion races. He was down at least 25 laps in five straight Clashes, and he un­der­stands just how quickly a race at Day­tona can change.

“I have a split-sec­ond de­ci­sion to try to win a race, and I set up the pass and got po­si­tion on him clean, “John­son said. ” I don’t know what trig­gered his car wob­bling, and then the ac­ci­dent started from there.”

AP PHOTO/PHE­LAN M. EBENHACK

Mar­tin Truex Jr. (19), Denny Ham­lin (11), Kevin Har­vick (4), Austin Dil­lon (3), Clint Bowyer (14), Erik Jones (20), Chase El­liott (9), Daniel Suarez (41), Ryan New­man (6), Alex Bow­man (88) and Aric Almirola (10) are in­volved in a multi-car pileup dur­ing the NASCAR Clash on Sun­day at Day­tona In­ter­na­tional Speed­way. Jim­mie John­son won the ex­hi­bi­tion race.

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