DAYTONA, Fla. — With his Daytona 500 victory on Sunday, it looks like Jimmie Johnson has announced he is back.But the five-time Sprint Cup champion, knocked off the throne the last two years by Tony Stewart and Brad Keselowski, said he never went anywhere.“The garage area, they’re wise to all that,” Johnson said after beating Dale Earnhardt Jr. to the finish line Sunday. “I had great speed and pace last year. Definitely championship form. I had two bad races at the end.”Johnson won five consecutive championships from 2006 to 2010 before finishing sixth in 2011 and third in 2012. He led the points chase into the final two races last year.He separated the significance of a second Daytona 500 victory and a sixth series championship.“This is a one-of-a-kind race,” he said. “The notoriety that follows is great for all of us. It’s just time to sit back and enjoy it. ... If there are moments of doubt later in the year, I’m sure we’ll look back at this and smile again.”Perhaps adding to Johnson’s satisfaction, he passed the No. 2 of Keselowski — who beat him out last year for the series title — for the win Sunday.“It’s just someone between you and the trophy,” Johnson said. “I knew the 2 had some damage and wasn’t going to be really fast. That’s the only thing I thought about regarding the 2, was that he had some damage and that hopefully I could get by him with the car he had.”Heartbroken StewartTony Stewart didn’t take his car out of the garage Saturday because he liked it so much. Less than 35 laps into the race on Sunday, it was out of the race.Stewart’s No. 14 Chevrolet, which he was so proud of during the week, was caught up in the first wreck of the Daytona 500, knocking him out of one of the few races he has yet to win.“If I didn’t tell you I was heartbroken and disappointed, I’d be lying to you,” he said in a television interview. “We had a car that was really, really good. ... Pretty happy with the way our race was going, trying to pick them off one at a time and get into the top five.”Second againFor the second straight year, Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished second. He made a late charge Sunday in an attempt to add a second Daytona 500 victory.“I’m ready to do it again,” he said. “Running second over and over is great and all for our team, a good start to the season. But I would love, even having to go through all the hassle that Jimmie is about to go through this week — it’s worth it.”Earnhardt at least has his 2004 victory. He knows what it’s like to wait. His father, Dale Earnhardt Sr., finally won the 500 on his 20th try.“You just don’t know when you’ll ever get that opportunity again, or if you’ll ever get that opportunity again,” he said. “I knew before I won in 2004, I was [resigned] to the idea I may be trying to win this race my entire career, because I knew all too well how that was for my father.”Patrick spinDanica Patrick struggled to get out cleanly from her pit box, and it cost her positions on at least two of her stops. Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Greg Biffle both shot past her during one stop.She wondered whether taking the first position box, the one closest to the re-entry lane — as is traditional for the pole-winner — was worth it, particularly on green-flag stops.“It was definitely different pulling out, because everyone has momentum next to you,” she said.She also said she had a lot of wheel spin.“I don’t know if that’s the fact that there’s no rubber in front of me,” she said. “I’m sure there’s a great reason why you pull into that first pit stall.”Keselowski rallyBrad Keselowski’s car was damaged in the first accident, but he had a chance to win the race. He said he was disappointed that a caution ruined his best chance to get past Jimmie Johnson.“I definitely hit something big,” Keselowski said. “I don’t know what that was. I was probably more concerned with the fact that the yellow came out exactly when we were an inch or two behind Jimmie. That set it up for him to have the high lane on the restart, and we weren’t strong enough with the damage to our car to do anything once that happened."Keselowski finished fourth.
Carlos Mendez, 817-390-7407 Twitter: @calexmendez