The last lap of the QuikTrip 500 was emblematic of a familiar adage concerning the skills of six-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson and the reigning titlist, Kyle Busch.
It's amazing how well Busch saves a car, and it's amazing how seldom Johnson has to.
Busch, who had won the Xfinity Series race at Atlanta Motor Speedway the previous day, expertly moved up past a fading Kevin Harvick and took off after Johnson. And while Johnson made his Chevrolet as smooth as one can be at breakneck speeds on a bumpy track, Busch's impetuosity worked against him.
"We got down to (turn) three, and I was, like, the only opportunity I have is to try to go outside his wake and not follow him," Busch said to Fox Sports. "And when I did that, man, it landed on the splitter (at the front of the car) and just plowed up the race track."
Meanwhile, the only major wreck of the lovely Sunday afternoon was breaking out behind the leaders. The race ended officially under caution, but Johnson had the stable edge by the time the yellow flag waved, and Busch's Toyota was so out of sorts that Dale Earnhardt Jr. slipped by to take second.
Oh, that name. Earnhardt. The victory, Johnson's 76th, matched the career total of the legend whose son crossed the finish line behind him. By virtue of the elder Earnhardt's untimely death in the 2001 Daytona 500, Johnson never raced against him. Johnson's first three Cup races took place later that year.
This particular Johnson victory was something of a conundrum. With new rules in place (but not in the Daytona 500) that reduced downforce on the cars as a means of making the drivers' skills more significant, most everyone talked about how hard the cars were to drive after driving them to perfection.
"That race was like 1975," Brad Keselowski said after finishing ninth. "I should grow my sideburns out after that one."
It was run wide open, except for pit stops, for the first 210 of the overtime-extended 330 laps that transpired. It tested the patience and truthfulness of fans who swear they hate crashes and love safe races right up until one that they find boring.
Driver reviews were exultant.
"It was fun," Joey Logano said. "We were sideways, sliding around. The cars were moving."
"They just need to keep taking more (downforce away)," fifth-place finisher Carl Edwards said. "This is real racing. We're driving hard."
"Out of control all day," Martin Truex Jr. said after finishing seventh. "It was fun to race like that. I don't think it'll be quite that slick at most tracks."
It wasn't quite as exciting for the great majority, those whose view was less invigorating than what was experienced within the cockpit of a speeding automobile.
Race drivers often say, "I don't know about you, but from where I was sitting, it was an exciting race."
One would hope 190 miles an hour, around and around and in close proximity, would be invigorating.
|Best of Jimmie Johnson|
|Top-5 Finishes||20||2004, '07|
|Top-10 Finishes||24||5 times|
That Johnson, the most methodical of craftsmen behind the wheel, would prosper in the first test of the new rules at this track wasn't unexpected. He didn't dominate. He led 52 laps total, including, conveniently, the final 45. Strategy by his master crew chief Chad Knaus gave him a comfortable lead that the late incidence of caution flags erased, but Johnson played the last lap masterfully with the set of cards that first place provides.
If there was a balanced remark, one that attempted to reconcile the phenomena of race drivers being able to handle cars that were hard to handle, it came from Knaus, who said, "This is a type of race track, honestly, that you see a lot of long, green-flag runs because the tire wear is so high that the drivers, they're just trying to stay away from everybody and stay in control."
Not his guy.
Winning team owner Rick Hendrick said, "I think the real fans understand strategy, and guys short-pitting, and guys getting new tires and running to the front and then falling off. I think if we'd had some cautions, the fans would have gotten a heck of a show."
Johnson, as is his habit and natural bent, handled it all—victory, tying the legendary Earnhardt, serving notice that a seventh championship is still out there for the taking—with a grace and good nature that somehow exasperates his detractors.
Two men have won seven championships at NASCAR's premier level: Earnhardt and Richard Petty. Johnson caught Earnhardt in another important category. Petty won 200 races. He's out of reach there.
Of the elder Earnhardt, Johnson said, "I didn't have a chance to race against him, unfortunately, but today, there's been a big void in my mind about not having a chance to race against him, and I was literally a handful of months away from having that opportunity.
"So to tie him today, for myself personally, it gives me a little something."
The Daytona 500 was a tough act to follow. A week after a nightmarish Speedweeks ended, proud Chevys of Hendrick Motorsports performed as if they were knights of a round track (well, sort of) instead of a table. They finished first, second, eighth (rookie Chase Elliott) and 23rd (Kasey Kahne).
The tables weren't completely turned. The Joe Gibbs Toyotas, masters of Daytona Beach, trailed in third, fifth, 16th and 19th.
"You don't want cars that are easy to drive," Earnhardt Jr. said. "You don't want to look at the guy beside you and think, he ain't got the talent I've got, but he's got the same opportunity because the cars are so easy.
"Everybody thinks they're the best driver out there, so you want to make the cars as challenging as possible so you take that out of the equation, and it just comes down to talent."
The second week of the season left drivers giddy and fans, as usual, left to wonder what might have been. A similar test, Las Vegas Motor Speedway, is next. The Daytona 500 carries as much figurative glitter as Vegas does literally, but in terms of NASCAR, the championship in general and the Chase in particular run through tracks like Atlanta.
All quotes are taken from NASCAR media, team and manufacturer sources unless otherwise noted.