DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - If this were football, Jimmie Johnson would be thanking his linemen, and bragging about his defense.
Johnson won the Bud Shootout last night when he combined a perfect pit stop from the guys in his trenches with the ability to hold off a charging pack for the final 16 laps.
"That pit stop was incredible and it meant everything because it got us out front," Johnson said. "Then it was all a matter of choking them down with the brakes and keeping them all back there behind me. I had my eyes in the mirror all the way once we got the lead, and if they went down through the grass, I was going to go there with them. I wasn't letting them pass me."
Johnson started 17th in the 70-lap race at Daytona International Speedway, an all-star event that features the pole winners from last season and previous Bud Shootout champions. With no championship points on the line and the 20 drivers competing for just cash, the format encourages risk-taking, and Ryan Newman engaged.
Newman, who finished second, decided to take just two tires when most of the field pitted on lap 46 and took four tires, and that strategy got him the lead by lap 51 when all of the field had made their stops. Newman was in front by three-quarters of a second with 21 laps to go. He eventually surrendered the lead to Johnson on lap 55, but stood by the decision to gamble.
"The car didn't handle the best at the end there, but I think the tire strategy was a good call," Newman said. "It got us out front, and that's the right position to be in. Jimmie did a good job of defensive driving, which is what you have to do out front."
In the final 10 laps, Johnson withstood pressure from Greg Biffle, who had charged into the lead on the first lap and held it when the field took the 10-minute break after the first 20 laps, as the Shootout format dictates. With 25 laps to go, Biffle led a big move for the only pit stop of the race, but came out of pit road third behind the gambling Newman, and Johnson, who had the fastest four-tire stop.
In the final sprint to the checkered flag, Johnson got help from Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon, who is a part owner of Johnson's No. 48 car. Gordon and Johnson had Biffle sandwiched between them with five laps to go, preventing Biffle from getting any drafting aid that might have pushed him by Johnson.
"There was so much going on out there, but what I remember most was working my way up to get in third behind Biffle," Gordon said. "I figured if I couldn't win it, I'd make sure he would. I was just blocking everybody I could, trying to get some momentum to get up there. "
The win paid Johnson $212,945 and gave him his first win in a restrictor-plate race.
"I saw a lot of tires smoking, and a lot of guys bumping around back there," Johnson said. "I was just trying to keep them side-by-side and bottled up, because I knew if I could do that I had a good shot at winning this."
Biffle, who led for 44 laps, finished fifth behind Tony Stewart.
Pole-sitter Dale Jarrett, the defending champion and a three-time winner of the Shootout, had problems with his car running too tight throughout the race. Jarrett dropped to seventh after just two laps, and was 19th, second from last, after only six laps. Adjustments during the brief intermission partially remedied the difficulty and Jarrett finished 15th.
Defending Nextel Cup champ Kurt Busch started sixth and finished sixth after briefly challenging the leaders late in the race, which took place under the lights in front of an estimated 85,000 fans.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., who radioed his crew about possible loose wiring early in the race and said his car was "junk", stood 18th at the break, but worked his way as high as fifth by lap 33, and finished seventh.
Bobby Gerhart learned last night that the best place to be in a crash-filled race is out front, so all of the fender-bending goes on well behind you.
Running from the pole, Gerhart won the ARCA Re/Max Series Advance Discount Auto Parts 200 at Daytona International Speedway by staying in the lead, and just surviving.
Twenty-three cars were culled from the 41-car field in the race, which had to be shortened to 65 laps after numerous crash-related delays. Eleven drivers were treated at the Speedway's infield care center and released. Two had to be hospitalized.
"Our car was that strong," Gerhart said. "My biggest problem was stepping out front that far, and being in danger of getting tangled up with the back of the pack."
Only nine cars were on the lead lap when Gerhart took the checkered flag.
"I wasn't liking any of that - we look for a lot of green-flag racing time out there," Gerhart said. "It was just an isolated deal, and I can't explain it. Whether you've got 20 years of experience or two days, these cars are a handful."
Frank Kimmel, the six-time ARCA champion who had to start last after he was penalized for missing the pre-race inspection deadline, worked his way through the mayhem to finish second.
"We had a bunch of close calls out there, but I guess we were fortunate," Kimmel said. "We were pushing pretty hard, and in position to get up to the front in another lap or two, but we just ran out of time."
Contact Matt Markey at: email@example.com or 419-724-6510.