Anticipation and nerves of steel were perhaps some of the best ways to describe the mood prior to the running of Sunday's Daytona 500. Some of the buzz at the track stemmed from the new "Gen-6" race cars, pole sitter Danica Patrick, as well as Saturday's Drive4COPD 300's horrifying finish that injured at least 33 fans who were taken to local hospitals nearby and were recovering as of press time.
Needless to say, the race still went on and when the green flag waved to start this year's NASCAR Sprint Cup action, the cream rose to the top while some surprises emerged smelling like roses when all was said and done.
When all the pit stops, drafting, and jockeying for positions was completed, it was five-time series champion and 2006 race winner Jimmie Johnson prevailing at Daytona, besting Hendrick Motorsports Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Mark Martin to the stripe. In typical Team 48 fashion, Johnson bid his time to the front, leading only 17 circuits en route to car owner Rick Hendrick's seventh "500" win in somewhat quiet but not so surprising fashion.
"I had a lot of confidence in the final few laps leading the train, so I just knew how fast the car was," Johnson said. "There is no other way to start the season than to win the Daytona 500."
His car's strength truly showed when it counted, as Johnson made some power moves from the inside line to take the lead late in the race for a convincing victory. In essence, it somewhat reflected what Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus have done since starting their racing dreams back in late 2001, approaching races and championship battles with somewhat unorthodox strategy.
Ultimately, Johnson drove his car on to their outside line for the remainder of the race, holding Earnhardt, Martin, and other contenders at bay.
That said, it wasn't as if the road to the Harley J Earl Trophy was handed to the No. 48 team.
The day looked like it would belong to Joe Gibbs Racing's trio, with Matt Kenseth churning a dominant debut, leading 86 laps in his new No. 20 Dollar General Toyota before engine problems shortened his day, as well as teammate Kyle Busch's afternoon. Both drivers' days ended prematurely, as their stout machines were loaded to their respective haulers long before the race concluded.
Meanwhile, Denny Hamlin was up front late and looking like the best chance for a "500" win for the Gibbs organization before a costly lane decision dropped him to a 14th-place finish.
Needless to say, he was frustrated after the race, feeling as if his plans to win or contend at all were dashed away by former teammate Joey Logano.
Hamlin expressed his thoughts on his Twitter and somewhat apologized to defending series champion and fourth place race finisher Brad Keselowski because of "your genius teammate was too busy messing up the inside line one move at a time."
Patrick held her own, running in the front pack virtually all race long, leading five laps and becoming the first woman to lead the Daytona 500 to come home in eighth position. Surely, she was a storyline of her own, but the day belonged to the sport's most dominant driver and team of the 2000's. Still, her second start in this event was a lot more memorable than her rookie effort and a race in which her performance may have garnered her some respect and admiration from those in the stands and in the garage area.
"Ran up front all day long, led a little, stayed in the top 10 pretty much," Patrick said in a summarily way. Drafting up with the leaders and confident with making passing attempts, about the only mistakes she made were her exits out of pit road where she lost positions as well as pulling out of the line to get hung out to dry in the waning laps.
''I would imagine pretty much anyone would be kicking themselves about what they coulda, shoulda have done to give themselves an opportunity to win,'' Patrick added. ''I think that's what I was feeling today, was uncertainty as to how I was going to accomplish that.''
Perhaps the race's biggest game changer came on lap 33, when Kasey Kahne was collected in a multi-car crash that took out pre-race favorites Kevin Harvick and Tony Stewart. Following some lengthy repairs, Kahne and Stewart returned to the track and finished the 500 many laps down respectively in 36th and 41st while Harvick was eliminated altogether in 42nd position.
Other favorites like Jeff Gordon and Martin Truex, Jr. encountered late-race problems that derailed their strong performances and relegated them to 20th and 24th place finishes. Gordon's finish was not indicative of the strong Chevy he had in the race, especially in the early going when he led the first 31 laps. Still, lady luck was not on his side once more at Daytona, with a finish that was somewhat in the back end of the serial finishing order.
Johnson's second Daytona 500 could be the catalyst for a bid at his sixth championship, a feat that would be quite impressive for the El Cajon, CA native. Having won four of those titles with the "Car of Tomorrow," a banner year with the "Gen-6" car may be a display of the 37-year-old's talents to adapt to changes that may arguably be seen as equalizers for the sport's most dominant team.
Patience was utilized by the No. 48 team, with smooth pit stops and strategies all race long as well as a driver who was not noticed until all the pre-race stories and hype subsided to the tune of a somewhat botched celebration but a joyful, confetti-filled Victory Lane.
While others were chirping and crowing about their defeat either at their own hands or by bad luck, it was a familiar face who revolutionized the sport that took the crown and now stands to be the overall favorite once more for another championship.
Whether fans and competitors like it or not, the winner of this year's "Great American Race" was the driver who teams have chased since virtually the most dominant force took "The Chase" by storm.
Alas, next Sunday's race at Phoenix International Raceway (FOX at 2:30 PM ET) is a new opportunity for the 42 other teams to make a statement in this long, 36-race season schedule that'll surely be filled with excitement, suspense, surprise, and perhaps, dominance otherwise known as the No. 48 team.
Or perhaps, it just may be a year filled with the unexpected, which is not unusual in the world of NASCAR Sprint Cup racing.