DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – There’s one certainty about racing at NASCAR’s most unpredictable tracks: a chaotic ending.
Jimmie Johnson dominated the latest restrictor-plate race Saturday night, winning at Daytona International Speedway for the second time this year and joining another exclusive list at the famed venue.
Johnson led 94 of 161 laps, including 55 of the final 57.
But like so many other races at Daytona and Talladega, where horsepower-sapping plates generally keep speeds below 200 mph, it came with a frantic finish.
There were two multi-car wrecks on the final lap, the second one just a few feet shy of the finish line.
“Be glad you were sitting in the stands and not in the cars,” runner-up Tony Stewart said.
Scott Speed and Carl Edwards got together in turn 2, starting a six-car pileup. Instead of ending the race under caution, NASCAR decided to let the cars race to the line.
With drivers maneuvering for position through the final turns, David Gilliland and Danica Patrick got tangled, turning Patrick’s car into several others. Kyle Busch, Ryan Newman, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Jeff Burton and other were involved.
“I asked my crew when the checkered fell to remind me why I do this,” driver/owner Michael Waltrip said. “What’s fun about it? ... I just know that 200 miles an hour pushing and shoving – this is fun for the fans and it’s going to be fun to watch back on TV. I wasn’t having any fun doing it.
“I was too nervous. I’d much rather watch. Why don’t I just watch all the time? I’ve got that option. I don’t know what’s wrong with me.”
There’s little drivers can do to avoid all the turmoil that comes with plate racing. It happens at just about every race at Daytona and Talladega, where drivers and fans are always waiting for “the big one.”
Two months ago at Talladega, Stenhouse Jr. and J.J. Yeley triggered a frightening crash in the final few laps that sent Kurt Busch’s car airborne and on top of Newman’s car.
On Saturday night, the race was fairly clean until a six-car accident with 11 laps remaining prompted a red flag. That wreck included another vicious hit for Denny Hamlin. Hamlin’s car inexplicably turned right and spun hard into the frontstretch wall. It then turned back into traffic and was tagged hard by AJ Allmendinger in a hit that caused his car to lift off the ground.
“We knew it was coming,” Johnson said. “Getting down to the end of these things, we knew it was going to get exciting.”
That excitement can be painful, too.
Hamlin and Allmendinger had to collect themselves after climbing from their wrecked cars. Hamlin missed four races earlier this season with a compression fracture in a vertebra in his lower back, and took a hard hit last Sunday at Kentucky.
“There’s a 50-percent chance you’re going to wreck,” said Kevin Harvick, who finished third. “The odds are 50/50, and we’ve had a lot of good luck on them and we’ve had some bad luck lately on them.”
Several drivers, included Stewart and his teammates, have opted to move to the back of the field early in the restrictor-plate races, hoping to avoid any early wrecks and then make a move toward the front late.
“You go back there to try to give yourself a little bit of a buffer,” Stewart said, acknowledging that some spectators would rather not see the tactical move. “If you’re up there in the mix, if something happens, it’s hard to get away from it when you’re crammed in there. This is a 195-mile-an-hour chess match, and the lap that pays is lap 160.
“A lot is said about guys that lag back like that, but we’re in the most competitive series in the country, and when you’re running in the most competitive series in the country, you have to do what you think is in the best interest of you, your car, your team and your situation to get to the end. And part of winning races is knowing to be where at what times.”
Johnson seems to have that feel as well as anyone in 2013.
The Sprint Cup points leader won his fourth race of the season and etched his name in the Daytona record books.
“That’s amazing, gosh,” Johnson said. “To tie anything that Bobby did is really special.”