Last weekend at Daytona proved that in the world of racing, experience counts.
Jimmie Johnson captured the checkered flag Sunday, Feb. 19 in the Daytona 500. Saturday, Feb. 18, reigning Nextel Cup champion Tony Stewart won in the Busch Series 300-miler for the second consecutive year. Veteran driver Mark Martin won the Friday, Feb. 17 race in the Craftsman Truck series.
None of the victories was easy. Johnson had to do it without the services of his crew chief, Rockford native Chad Knaus.
Knaus was suspended for the Daytona 500 by NASCAR officials during last weeks qualifying for illegally changing the aerodynamics of the No. 48 Lowes Chevrolet.
Despite the setback, Johnson used knowledge gleamed from other restrictor plate races to help claim his first-ever Daytona 500 victory. He was able to avoid the urge to race as aggressively as he usually likes and to let patience play a larger role than usual.
After starting the race from the ninth spot, Johnson hung around the top 10 for most of the race, occasionally even letting other drivers pass him during the first 175 laps. It wasnt until lap 187 that Johnson challenged for the lead, and overtook teammate Brian Vickers.
Johnson held on to the lead for the remainder of the race, despite late lap challenges by Dale Earnhardt Jr. and third-place finisher Ryan Newman.
This was the second consecutive Daytona 500 victory for Johnsons car owner, Rick Hendrick.
Saturdays Busch Series race was equally as tough for Stewart. Stewart had to hold off Michael Waltrip and Earnhardt Jr. for the final 13 laps as they battled side-by-side to get around him. Not only did Stewart have to hold off fellow drivers, he had to try to wrestle with his ill-handling car.
Stewart complained several times of his car being loose throughout the race. On the final lap of the race with Stewart, while Waltrip and Earnhardt were battling for the lead, a huge pile-up occurred behind them as they crossed the finish line. It wasnt until an hour after the race that NASCAR officials were able to figure out the final finishing order.
Martin found himself in the lead with three laps remaining in Friday nights Craftsman Truck Series race, when a caution flag came out. This set up a green-white-checkered finish. Before completing the first of the final three laps, another caution came out as Ron Hornadays truck spun and collected several other trucks along the way. This allowed Martin to finish the final two laps under yellow, and win the first truck race of the season.
The Nextel Cup and Busch Series races go from Florida to California this weekend. The Cup drivers will compete in the Auto Club 500, and the Busch guys will try for victory in the Stater Brothers 300.
Doug Halberstadt is a local resident and is track announcer at Rockford Speedway. He can be reached via e-mail at Dougster61@aol.com.
From the Feb. 22-28, 2006, issue