Updated Monday, February 25, 2013 at 01:41 PM
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — NASCAR's new Gen 6 car model pretty much left traditional NASCAR fans in a depressive restrictor-plate funk Sunday afternoon.
Jimmie Johnson won the Daytona 500, and Danica Patrick hung tough until the final lap.
Johnson, a five-time Cup champion, gets a bad rap because he is labeled boring. Danica gets a bad rap because she's a girl.
Boo hoo. It's clear that the evolving NASCAR business model is going to accommodate Johnson's potential run at a sixth title and the relevance of Patrick.
Patrick had a shot to blow up the Internet late Sunday afternoon when she trailed only Johnson and Greg Biffle going into the final lap at Daytona International Speedway. But after losing her aerodynamic push when Dale Earnhardt Jr. bailed from behind to make a run at Johnson, Danica got bounced back in the usual Daytona shuffle to place eighth, the best ever for a woman in the race. Biffle of Vancouver, Wash., finished sixth. Enumclaw's Kasey Kahne was 36th.
In the end, nobody was able to chase down Johnson as he held his line without any significant challenge.
"It was awesome," Johnson said.
Maybe that's too strong a word from the industry perspective, but the day definitely helped everyone shift their focus away from a multicar accident that left 24 fans injured at the speedway Saturday afternoon.
"I had a sick feeling all day, all morning, since I got up, and last night about what happened at the end of the race with the fans, which is something that we cannot have happen," said Mark Martin, who finished third Sunday. "I was happy that we were able to race and not have a huge accident."
There were two multi-car dustups — including one that took out three-time Cup series champion Tony Stewart early in the race — but not the typical "Big One." Johnson took the checkered flag to secure his second Daytona 500 victory in his 400th career start.
On the flip side, Patrick was making just her 11th Cup start, and had millions of eyeballs on her after she became the first woman to win the pole position in Daytona's 55-year history. Patrick drew all sorts of attention from places as far away as Colombia, France, Germany, Australia and South Africa.
But it was all about racing once the engines revved up.
"I would imagine that pretty much anyone would kick themselves and say, 'What could I have or should I have done to give myself that opportunity to win?' " she said. "I think that's what I was feeling."
There was disappointment all over the garage, expect for the No. 48 Chevy.
Johnson snatched the lead from defending Cup champion Brad Keselowski just before the final restart after a caution for debris and never faced a serious charge the final six laps.
"For me, the defining moment in the race was the caution coming out and the 48 being ahead of the 2 (Keselowski)," said Johnson, who lost his run at series titles the last two years. "That gave me lane choice and really control of the race in the closing laps."
Regardless of the experience level, drivers still are trying to get a feel for NASCAR's new Gen 6 model. Besides its showroom look, the car was designed to eliminate the tandem racing that was deemed unacceptable by most everyone in the industry.
The restrictor-plate takeaway is this: The outside line is the place to be in Daytona and Talladega because the risk of ducking inside is too great. You could go from third to 35th in a few seconds. It pretty much negated the standard restrictor-plate strategy of grabbing the inside lane and protecting your turf. And that led to a lot of single-file racing.
"The game has changed," Johnson said. "It used to be: defend the bottom. Now it's defend the top."
TERRY RENNA / AP
Jimmie Johnson celebrates after winning the Daytona 500 Sunday, the second Daytona 500 victory for Johnson.