DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - Jimmie Johnson has won the 55th annual Daytona 500 race at the Daytona International Speedway, where a large portion of fencing had to be repaired Saturday night after a violent crash that injured more than 30 fans.
Johnson held off Dale Earnhardt Jr. to become the 10th driver with multiple wins in "The Great American Race." Danica Patrick was running third heading to the final lap, but she dropped back to eighth as everyone jostled for position. Still, it was the highest finish ever for a woman in NASCAR's signature event. Janet Guthrie finished 11th in 1980.
Johnson, a five-time champion, also won the 500 in 2006. But he's had some tough finishes in recent years, including a 42nd-place flameout in 2012.
Damage to a safety fence at the Speedway from Saturday's horrific last-lap crash of a Nationwide Series race was repaired. Track president Joie Chitwood said workers finished repairs around 2 a.m. and that fans sitting in that area are being allowed to change seats if they feel unsafe.
The Daytona 500 race officially began at 1 p.m. Sunday. Danica Patrick led the field to the green flag for the Great American Race. She's the first woman to start a top-tier NASCAR race from the pole.
The horrific crash that injured more than 30 people happened during the last lap of the Nationwide race on Saturday. Speedway officials said more than 30 NASCAR fans were injured when large chunks of debris sailed into the grandstands.
According to officials, several fans were rushed to Halifax Hospital with serious injuries. Hospital officials said two individuals who were in critical condition are now stable. Other injured fans were taken to Halifax in Port Orange. In addition to those taken to hospitals, another 14 were treated at the Speedway medical center for injuries.
Halifax Health spokesman Byron Cogdell said seven people with crash-related injuries remained hospitalized on Sunday.
The 12-car crash began about 200 feet from the start-finish line as the front-runners approached the checkered flag. Leader Regan Smith attempted to block Brad Keselowski for the win, triggering a horrific pileup that could have been much worse.
"Just seeing the carnage on the racetrack, it was truly unbelievable," driver Justin Allgaier said.
Track President Joie Chitwood says workers repaired a section of fence about 200 feet from the start-finish line, the area shredded when Kyle Larson's car went airborne and crashed through the barrier that separates the cars from the track. Large pieces of debris, including a tire, sprayed into the upper and lower section of the stands.
The horror in the stands marred what had been a week of celebration that kicked off with Danica Patrick becoming the first woman to win a pole in the premier series. Chitwood says if any fans are uncomfortable with their up-close seating for the Daytona 500, officials will work to move them.
Chitwood stressed proper safety protocols were met.
“Our security maintained a buffer that separates the fans from the fencing area,” he said.
This is the third time in four years the track has needed major repairs on Daytona 500 weekend. The 2010 race was interrupted for more than two hours because of a pothole on the track. Juan Pablo Montoya slammed into a jet dryer in last year’s race that caused a raging inferno that stopped the event for two hours.
Tony Stewart won the chaotic race that ended with the nasty crash.
Otherwise, it was business as usual Sunday morning as crews prepared for the big race. The stages for driver introductions and the pre-race concert were already in place, as were the generators on pit road. The Daytona 500 logo and other track logos got a touch up.