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HAIL TO THE CHIEFLESS

Some see an asterisk. Jimmie Johnson sees an exclamation point. Or at least a period.

Mired in controversy since his No. 48 Chevrolet was discovered with a device designed to circumvent NASCAR qualifying rules, Johnson overcame the ejection of his crew chief on Monday and a history of restrictor-plate frustration to win his first Daytona 500 on Sunday before more than 200,000 spectators.

"I think there's a black mark next to qualifying, but the circumstances we overcame, we overcame everyone against us and we deserved it," Johnson said. "We were wrong in qualifying, and we came back from all that and won the Daytona 500."

With Chad Knaus watching on television - reportedly from his home near Charlotte - and Hendrick Motorsports engineer Darian Grubb making his debut as crew chief, Johnson passed teammate Brian Vickers on Lap 187 of a scheduled 200 and held on through a green-white-checkered finish to win one of the wildest Daytona 500s in recent memory.

Some will assume a cheater had found a way to prevail. Many within the garage have tired of Knaus' rules-pushing after watching him amass seven infractions since 2001. But Johnson served the penalty issued by NASCAR in this instance - starting at the back of his 150-mile qualifier. From there he raced his way into the ninth starting spot, and won with a car deemed legal by NASCAR in post-race inspections on Sunday.

Casey Mears was second for his best career Nextel Cup finish, followed by Ryan Newman, who had his best result at Daytona, Elliott Sadler and Tony Stewart.

Team-owner Rick Hendrick called the situation a "non-issue" after the penalty was served and Mears called it a "well-earned victory" and completely legal in his mind, but Newman wasn't satisfied.

"It's just disappointing," Newman said. "I mean, I think a lot of Jimmie Johnson and his talent and stuff, but I'm pretty sure that three of his last four, if not three out of his last three wins have had conflicts with the cars being illegal. It's not necessarily good for the sport."

Johnson's car failed a roof height inspection on the weekend he won at Las Vegas last year, resulting in a two-race suspension for Knaus plus a fine and points deduction. The suspension was later overturned. Then after Johnson's car used modified shock absorbers to win at Dover last year, NASCAR tweaked its rules to disallow their further use, but issued no penalties.

Johnson, admittedly "defensive," took offense at Newman's comments and a shot at his crew chief, Matt Borland.

"I tend to view (Newman's comments) as jealousy and he doesn't have a crew chief in there working hard enough," Johnson said. "If you look at what took place last year we had an appeal overturned, which is never done in this sport. We were complimented for the shocks that we designed and built at Dover. So it depends on how you look at it."

Knaus' only apparent contribution on Sunday was an inspirational note read to the team by Johnson. He shared a cell phone call with Johnson from victory lane.

Johnson's win was validation for more than what he called the "hating" of his team this week. He has been lambasted for his driving on restrictor-plate tracks in the past few years. Dale Earnhardt Jr. called him an "idiot" and blamed him for starting a 25-car wreck at Talladega last May. In October, Johnson admitted to starting an eight-car mess 20 laps in that ruined his and Mark Martin's championship hopes.

Eighteen drivers led Sunday, with Earnhardt out front seven times for a race-high 32 laps. Earnhardt, who dubbed himself the man to beat last week, raced in the top 10 much of the afternoon, but did not have the kind of car that allowed him to dice through the field in past Daytona races, including a 2004 Daytona 500 win.

As an evenly balanced field relied on drafting help to advance, Stewart seemed to rely on bile. At times furious with Jeff Gordon, Kenseth and Jamie McMurray after bumping incidents or worse, the defending series champion was shuffled to the end of the lead lap three times by penalty, or by pit stops to repair damage. But he charged back each time.

Johnson began to make his final push after taking four tires on his last pit stop on Lap 177, restarting fifth but chasing down Vickers with three scheduled laps left. He led four times for 23 laps, including the last 17. The green-white-checkered finish lined up four drivers - Johnson, Newman, Mears and Sadler - seeking a first Daytona Cup win. Newman tried to pass on the high line coming through Turn 4 on the last lap but Greg Biffle's mishap behind them froze the field and secured the win before Johnson reached the finish line.

GEARHEAD STATS

TIME OF RACE: 3 hours, 33 minutes, 26 seconds.

MARGIN OF VICTORY: Under caution.

WINNER'S AVERAGE SPEED: 142.667 mph.

CAUTION FLAGS: 11 for 39 laps.

LEAD CHANGES: 32 among 18 drivers.

LAP LEADERS: Burton 1-18; E.Sadler 19-23; J.Gordon 24; Kenseth 25-26; Earnhardt Jr. 27; Stewart 28-47; McMurray 48; Newman 49-57; Kenseth 58-80; Kurt Busch 81; Kvapil 82; Kenseth 83-84; Harvick 85; Earnhardt Jr. 86-90; Kenseth 91; Earnhardt Jr. 92-103; Martin 104-107; Johnson 108; Earnhardt Jr. 109-112; Biffle 113; Earnhardt Jr. 114-115; Kyle Busch 116-120; Johnson 121-125; Elliott 126; Martin 127-141; Earnhardt Jr. 142-143; Vickers 144-155; Johnson 156; Lepage 157; Earnhardt Jr. 158-163; Newman 164-177; Vickers 178-186; Johnson 187-203.

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