Updated: February 25, 2013, 3:35 PM ET

Jimmie Johnson Reflects On His Big Win

Sprint Cup: Roulette Ball Lands Right

By Ed Hinton | ESPN.com

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Give the 55th Daytona 500 this: At least the roulette ball didn't drop capriciously into some surprise number at the last second. There was a clear winner who earned it.

Nobody had anything for Jimmie Johnson at the end. That was clear. There's nothing wrong with that. That's the way the Richard Pettys and the Cale Yarboroughs of this game used to win Daytona 500s. Fans didn't complain, because the idea of racing was to outrun and outlast the other guy.

The roulette wheel at Casino de Daytona had a brake on it this time, rigged fair and square by crew chief Chad Knaus, who gave the best driver the best car.

And don't bother sending the same old comments and emails: "Johnson only wins because of Knaus, and Knaus cheats." I don't want to hear it. It's bull.

"At the end, when it was time to go, I knew we had a straight race car with no scratches on it," Johnson said. He'd kept it that way.

And that's why Knaus, asked what won the race for the 48 team, said, "I think it was Jimmie Johnson."

It took a driver who could keep the car clean. And it took a strong car. You call that racing.

"The speed our car had in it allowed me to really have control of the race there late," Johnson said. "I felt like I was sitting on something all day, and was just ready to have some fun when it counted …"

To get that, Knaus said, "We worked at least 35 days straight on the car that we raced in the Daytona 500. I know I put in personally one day of 38 hours straight."

You and I know there are only 24 hours in a day. Knaus doesn't. To him, the day begins when he comes to work, and ends when he leaves. And that's where those magnificent race cars come from.

Maybe if Mark Martin had been able to push Dale Earnhardt Jr. a little tighter, a little longer, Earnhardt might have gotten past Johnson at the end. But then you'd have had yet another roulette ball dropping suddenly.

And who knows? Maybe the best car in the field was driven by Danica Patrick. She ran in the top 10 all afternoon and was third entering the final lap, but fell back to eighth in the inevitable scramble.

She acknowledged that she just didn't have the experience to shoot it out with the draft-line sharks at the end.

"I was thinking in the car, 'How am I going to do this?'" she said. "I didn't know what to do, exactly."

Like the Gen-6 car, whose performance will be on vastly different display on the flat track at Phoenix on Sunday and the cookie-cutter 1.5-miler at Las Vegas the next, Patrick will face far different challenges from here.

Johnson was highly complimentary of her work here: "Being close to the other competitors, door to door, whatever environment takes place on the racetrack, at these speeds, she was very comfortable," he said. "I didn't think about it being Danica in the car. It was just another car on the track that was fast. That's a credit to her and the job she's doing."

But, Johnson added: "I think this style of racetrack really suits her. When we get to the other tracks, she has a tall learning curve ahead of her."

Usually, the week after the Daytona 500, the mantra is that now the real season begins. That's true to a point. But at least this time, the guy who won the 500 earned it. So maybe it is an indicator of his season to come.

Danica Patrick Breaks Down Eighth-Place Finish

Danica Patrick Makes History, Makes Progress

By Brant James | ESPN.com

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- NASCAR officials and local police had been ordering the gawkers from pit road for several minutes by the time actor James Franco screeched, "Drivers and Danica start your engines." The motor in her No. 10 Chevrolet had been rumbling for another few minutes as scores of fans lingered at her netted window, capturing photographs on everything from smartphones to tablets.

"I thought that was a hefty amount of people," she recalled.

It was, as characterized by an exasperated Daytona Beach police officer working through the crowd, "total madness." And these weren't inebriated rapscallions with sunburned chests ignoring authority through a drunken haze. These were little girls in sundresses, grannies with sweaters wrapped around their waists, and well-groomed men in collared shirts staging acts of civil disobedience until photographed to their satisfaction in front of Patrick's race car.

Total madness in a blissful sort of way.

Fireworks burst nearby. Patrick's father, T.J., struggled to locate his wife, Bev, and daughter, Brooke, as they slogged through the mass. It felt disorderly. It felt sublime.

Read the full story here

Brant James

Contributor, espnW.com
Brant James has covered the Daytona 500, Indianapolis 500, a World Series and Stanley Cup for the big hometown daily, an NCAA tournament and a Super Bowl. He's walked to the paddock with Kentucky Derby horses before post, ridden to the top of Mount Washington with Travis Pastrana and landed on an aircraft carrier with Dale Earnhardt Jr.