DAYTONA BEACH — On a day Danica Patrick did something no woman had ever accomplished, Jimmie Johnson continued to make history seem routine.
Mr. Five-Time became a two-time winner of the Great American Race, blowing past Brad Keselowski on a restart and holding off Dale Earnhardt Jr. in a frantic six-lap shootout to win Sunday's 55th Daytona 500.
Johnson became the fourth driver in NASCAR history to win multiple Daytona 500s and Sprint Cup championships, and the 10th to win the race multiple times.
"There is no other way to start the season than to win the Daytona 500," said Johnson, who earned his 61st Cup victory in his 400th career start. "I'm a very lucky man to have won it twice."
Johnson remained near the front of the pack all race as Patrick dominated the early spotlight.
The former IndyCar star and Sprint Cup rookie started from the pole and paced the 43-car field across the start-finish line. After Jeff Gordon passed her on the inside in Turn 1 of the first lap, she had to wait 89 laps to lead an official lap at Daytona International Speedway.
On a restart on Lap 90, Patrick passed Michael Waltrip on the inside to become the first woman to lead a race at Daytona and the 13th driver to have led both the Daytona 500 and the Indianapolis 500.
"These things happen and I'm proud," Patrick said, "but they're not the ultimate goal."
Patrick led five laps and consistently ran near the front. She finished eighth to notch her first Cup top-10 finish and secure the best finish by a woman in race history.
"She's going to make a lot of history all year long," Earnhardt said.
If Sunday was any indication, Johnson might, too. The 37-year-old, five-time series champion showed an early understanding of the new Gen-6 car to break his string of recent struggles at restrictor-plate tracks.
The new machines and their side drafts discouraged drivers from ducking low on the 2½-mile tri-oval for fear of dropping back in the field. That led to a follow-the-leader, single-file line on the high groove. Though the race featured 28 lead changes among 14 drivers, passing was at a premium.
"I kept trying everything I could to make a pass on the lower lanes," fourth-place finisher Keselowski said, "but it wasn't going to work."
Johnson passed Gordon for the lead on Lap 32 but didn't threaten again until the final 15 laps. He led only 17 laps, instead biding his time in the top five and justifying the confidence Hendrick Motorsports had in his No. 48 Chevrolet all month.
"It was Jimmie Johnson, quite honestly," crew chief Chad Knaus said.
With 19 laps left, Johnson finally made the inside lane work. With Denny Hamlin drafting from behind, Johnson charged past Greg Biffle into second and edged Keselowski coming out of Turn 2.
Keselowski, the defending series champ, regained the lead twice more before Johnson stole the lead for good with an inside pass on Lap 191. That gave him the outside line after a two-lap caution for a piece of debris that flew into Keselowski's dinged-up No. 2 Penske Racing Ford, which had escaped major damage in two previous accidents.
"That was really the move that set things up for us," Johnson said.
Keselowski faded to fourth after the restart, but Earnhardt led a late charge from the pack. Johnson edged his Hendrick teammate by 0.129 seconds to force Earnhardt to settle for his third runnerup finish in the past four 500s.
"I felt like I was sitting on something all day," Johnson said, "and was just ready to have some fun it when it counted."
The fun continued in Victory Lane, where Johnson savored another blast of confetti and took a swig from another bottle of celebratory champagne.
Times staff writer Matt Baker can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @MattHomeTeam.