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Jimmie Johnson wins Daytona 500; Danica Patrick finishes eighth

Jimmie Johnson celebrates after winning the Daytona 500

Jimmie Johnson celebrates after winning the Daytona 500 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series auto race at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Fla. (Feb. 24, 2013) Credit: AP

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Jimmie Johnson became the 10th driver to win multiple Daytona 500s, but Danica Patrick made her own kind of history in Sunday's 55th running of the Great American Race.

Patrick, the first female to start a Sprint Cup race on the pole, became the first woman to lead green-flag laps in the Daytona 500. Although she slipped from third to eighth during a wild final lap, it was the best finish ever by a female in the race.

"A stat that I found more interesting is that only 13 people have led the Indy 500 and Daytona. That was a much cooler stat for me," said Patrick, who prefers not to assess her performance in terms of gender. "On the quest to be the best driver, run up front, get to victory lane, these [other] things happen and I'm proud of them. But they're not the ultimate goal."

Dale Earnhardt Jr. was second for the third time in the past four years with a push from third finisher Mark Martin in the last-lap scramble. Patrick's performance impressed Earnhardt.

"She's gonna make a lot of history all year long," said Earnhardt, who was Patrick's team owner in the Nationwide Series. "It's going to be a lot of fun to watch her progress.

"I think she's done her best work in the Cup car. Every time I've seen her in a hectic situation, she's remained calm. She's a racer. She knows what's coming. She knew what to do today as far as track position and not taking risks."

Patrick, however, was disappointed over not finishing higher than eighth.

"I imagine probably anyone would kick themselves and say what could I have -- should I have -- done to give myself that opportunity to win," she said. "What I was feeling was uncertainty . . . I didn't know what to do, exactly. Maybe that's just my inexperience. Maybe that was me not thinking hard enough or not getting creative enough."

Johnson, a five-time Sprint Cup champ, won his other Daytona in 2006. In the previous three years, he was 35th, 27th and 42nd. "This is a one-of-a kind race,'' he said. "To be the first to win in a Gen-6 car is a very proud moment."

The restyled Generation 6 car made its Sprint Cup debut, and NASCAR is hopeful the car will produce more side-by-side, competitive racing. Although drivers universally gave the Gen-6 positive reviews, much of the racing was single file until the frantic finish. That was at least partly because the outside line proved dominant. Patrick said her reluctance to leave the top lane left her without drafting help and contributed to her late fade.

Johnson led only seven laps before nosing ahead of defending Sprint Cup champ Brad Keselowski just before a caution came out for debris with nine laps to go. That proved pivotal, because Johnson was able to restart on the outside.

"When I had lane choice,'' Johnson said, "I knew that we were set up to win the race and it was up to me to not make a mistake and blow it.''

Johnson's most difficult task was to hold off Keselowski. He shrugged off front-end damage from multiple accidents to lead 13 laps but settled for fourth.

Although Martin had Toyota's only top-10 finish, Toyotas held the first six positions with 60 laps to go. Matt Kenseth, in his first Cup race for Joe Gibbs Racing, led 86 of the first 149 laps but retired with engine trouble. Teammate Kyle Busch also went to the garage with a blown engine two laps later. JGR driver Denny Hamlin led 33 laps but finished 14th.

Regan Smith, deprived of victory by a crash in the final yards of Saturday's Nationwide race, was seventh, behind Ryan Newman and Greg Biffle. Michael McDowell and J.J. Yeley trailed Patrick to round out the top 10.

Jeff Gordon led the first 31 laps but had trouble with debris on his grill and ensuing issues with overheating. The four-time Sprint Cup champ finished 20th.

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