John­son trig­gers wreck, then wins

7-time Cup Series cham­pion comes through in the rain

Sun Sentinel Palm Beach Edition - - SPORTS - By Dan Gelston

DAY­TONA BEACH — Jim­mie John­son’s youngest daugh­ter prays ev­ery night for Daddy to win a race. When John­son scuf­fled through the worst sea­son of his ca­reer, he felt the strain of not reach­ing vic­tory lane.

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

John­son called the in­vo­ca­tion “cute to hear.”

He didn’t feel the same about crit­i­cal com­ments say­ing John­son 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, he showed there’s plenty left.

John­son trig­gered a wreck that wiped out nearly the en­tire 20-car field at Day­tona In­ter­na­tional Speed­way and zipped to the lead to win NASCAR’s sea­son-com­menc­ing al­beit rain­short­ened ex­hi­bi­tion Clash on Sun­day.

The seven-time Cup Series cham­pion failed to win a race for the first time in his ca­reer in 2018, 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: team­mates Wil­liam By­ron and Alex Bow­man locked in the front row for the Day­tona 500 ear­lier in the day in qual­i­fy­ing.

“It’s been a pretty awe­some day,” team owner Rick Hen­drick said. “I hate we had the wreck there at the end, but it’s been a re­ally good day for the team.”

The cel­e­bra­tion at Day­tona comes with a caveat: the last Day­tona 500 pole-sit­ter to win the race was Dale Jar­rett in 2000, and John­son’s vic­tory doesn’t count in the of­fi­cial NASCAR record book.

Paul Me­nard led 51 laps and con­trolled the race 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 and John­son won for the first time with new crew chief Kevin Meen­der­ing and new pri­mary spon­sor Ally.

John­son and long­time crew chief Chad Knaus split at the end of last sea­son af­ter seven cham­pi­onships. Knaus beat John­son in the race to vic­tory lane — by just a few hours. But the win that counts comes in the reg­u­lar sea­son, and John­son hasn’t won a Cup race since June 4, 2017, at Dover.

“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. Wood 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 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.”

John­son al­ready had proved at Day­tona he was good on the long run — and with the 48 in the garage. He com­peted in the 40-to-44 age di­vi­sion early Sun­day in the Day­tona Beach half marathon and fin­ished with a time of 1 hour, 34 min­utes, 18.4 sec­onds.

JARED C. TILTON/GETTY

Jim­mie John­son, driver of the No. 48 Ally Chevro­let, cel­e­brates in vic­tory lane af­ter win­ning the NASCAR Cup Series Ad­vance Auto Parts Clash at Day­tona In­ter­na­tional Speed­way on Sun­day.

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