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NASCAR moving away from restrictor plates, not pack racing

Martin Truex Jr. (19), Denny Hamlin (11), Kevin Harvick (4), Austin Dillon (3), Clint Bowyer (14), Erik Jones (20), Chase Elliott (9), Daniel Suarez (41), Ryan Newman (6), Alex Bowman (88) and Aric Almirola (10) are involved in a multi-car pileup during the NASCAR Clash auto race at Daytona International Speedway Sunday, Feb. 10, 2019, in Daytona Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Jimmie Johnson’s youngest daughter prays every night for Daddy to win a race. When Johnson scuffled through the worst season of his career, he felt the strain of not reaching victory lane.

“It was putting some pressure on me,” Johnson said.

Johnson called the invocation “cute to hear.”

He didn’t feel the same about critical comments saying Johnson was past his prime. The 43-year-old Johnson tweeted “I’m far from done” in the offseason, and with a risky move in the rain, he showed there’s plenty left.

Johnson triggered a wreck that wiped out nearly the entire 20-car field at Daytona and zipped to the lead to win the rain-shortened exhibition Clash on Sunday.

The seven-time Cup Series champion failed to win a race for the first time in his career in 2018, but a dose of aggression put him back in victory lane during the opening weekend of Speedweeks. Johnson’s win capped a banner day for Hendrick Motorsports: teammates William Byron and Alex Bowman locked in the front row for the Daytona 500 earlier in the day in qualifying.

Paul Menard led 51 laps and controlled the race interrupted three times for rain. With more rain looming, Johnson dipped low and tried to side-draft Menard as they battled for the lead. But Johnson turned Menard and started a chain-reaction accident that left cars sideways and smoking behind the No. 48 Chevrolet.

“I looked in the mirror and there were a lot of cars caught up in it,” Johnson said.

The rain that ended the race hit not long after the decisive move and Johnson won for the first time with new crew chief Kevin Meendering and new primary sponsor Ally.

“We still need a points race win to say we’re back in victory lane,” Johnson said. “But it was a great first step today.”

The wreck came 55 laps into the 75-lap event, and the race was called just four laps later. Kurt Busch was second, followed by Joey Logano, Ryan Blaney and Bowman.

“I felt like it was aggressive side-drafting,” Menard said. “I got turned to the inside and hooked to the right and all hell broke loose.”

“I have a split-second decision to try to win a race, and I set up the pass and got position on him clean, “Johnson said. “I don’t know what triggered his car wobbling and then the accident started from there.”

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