Johnson triggers wreck, then wins Clash at Daytona
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — 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 and zipped to the lead to win the rain-shortened 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,” 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.
“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 gels together It’s made that transition a lot easier.”
Johnson and longtime crew chief Chad Knaus split at the end of last season after seven championships. Knaus beat Johnson in the race to the first race day bash — by just a few hours. But the race to victory lane in a race that really 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.