DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Jimmie Johnson was long gone when all the Daytona disorder ensued.
He missed the explosion, the fire, the lengthy cleanup, the finish and the fog. He surely would have endured it all rather than the night he had at the Daytona 500.
The five-time NASCAR champion followed up his worst season with his worst finish in The Great American Race. Johnson wrecked on the second lap Monday night and finished 42nd – his worst showing in 53 starts spanning four series at the famed track.
This one came on the heels of a career-low, sixth-place finish in the Sprint Cup standings.
“I’m just really, really bummed to start the season this way,” Johnson said. “For all the hard work that has gone into getting ... ready for (Monday night); we didn’t get to complete two-and-a-half miles of green-flag racing. So, I’m pretty bummed.”
He had plenty of company.
Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jeff Gordon and Kasey Kahne also ended up in the garage. Gordon blew an engine on Lap 82 and finished 40th. Kahne was involved in a seven-car accident on Lap 190 and ended up 29th. Dale Earnhardt Jr. was Hendrick’s lone bright spot, finishing second to Matt Kenseth.
Johnson had little control over his exit.
Elliott Sadler nudged Johnson from behind, turning his No. 48 Chevrolet into the wall and collecting several other cars. David Ragan slammed hard into Johnson’s spinning car. Former IndyCar star Danica Patrick, former series champion Kurt Busch and defending Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne also were caught up in the mess, which happened early in a rain-delayed race that drivers, crews and fans waited more than 30 hours to get under way.
“We were all just getting up to speed, and I had some help from behind that got me out of control,” Johnson said. “From there on, I was just spinning.”
Johnson won five consecutive Sprint Cup championships before last season. He vowed to get back on track in 2012, but his team had a setback on the opening day of Speedweeks.
Johnson’s car failed initial inspection Feb. 17, and NASCAR officials have indicated that crew chief Chad Knaus will be penalized this week.
A bizarre delay in the Daytona 500 produced another unique moment in NASCAR: Driver Brad Keselowski posted messages on his Twitter account while he waited for the race to resume.
Then he got caught in a late-race crash – and tweeted again about a minute after the accident.
“Nothing we could do there,” he posted. “Never saw the wreck till we were windshield deep.”
Driver Juan Pablo Montoya’s collision with a large jet dryer vehicle touched off a huge fireball, bringing the race to a screeching halt for more than two hours. Montoya and the driver of the truck were OK.
NASCAR officials had the rest of the drivers stop their cars, and Keselowski took advantage of the break to post photos and answer questions from fans on his Twitter account. He apparently carries his mobile phone with him in his race car.
Keselowski tripled his number of followers in the process, going from approximately 65,000 before the race to nearly 200,000 as the race resumed.
Martin Truex Jr. picked the perfect time to take the lead in the Daytona 500.
Truex picked up a $200,000 bonus for Michael Waltrip Racing by leading at the halfway point of the race.
Truex passed Greg Biffle on Lap 100 and held off the pack for the big paycheck.
NASCAR’s most prestigious race came with a record purse of more than $19 million, and officials tweaked the payout rules this season to add more incentive to leading at the halfway point of the season opener.
Drivers, especially those behind the wheel for smaller teams, openly talked about going for the halfway bonus.
Truex brought it home, though. He finished 12th, earning $535,052.