Defending Cup champ begins with a dud

DAYTONA, Fla. - Jimmie Johnson's season is off to another slow start.

Although he finished 35th on Sunday at the Daytona 500, that doesn't mean much for Johnson's competitors the rest of the season. Nor are his chances of a five-peat over. Far from it.

Johnson started his record championship run with a victory in the Daytona 500 in 2006, but he finished 39th (2007), 27th (2008) and 31st (2009) the next three years.

Johnson's dominance peaks when the 10-race Chase for the Championship begins each fall. Since the Chase format started in 2004, Johnson has won 18 of the 60 races that determine the series champion.

"It's disappointing," Johnson said about Sunday's race. "But we have a whole year ahead of us."

Appreciates prayers. After spending much of his time with his ailing wife in recent months, Richard Petty came to Daytona to serve as the ceremonial pace-car driver.

"I went in (Saturday) morning," Petty said. "She was jumping around, and she said, 'Hurry up and get out of here. Get on to Daytona.' So I know she's feeling pretty good from that standpoint."

Lynda Petty, who had suffered from vision problems since the beginning of last year, in November was diagnosed with a central nervous system lymphoma. She has undergone several treatments at the Preston Robert Tisch Brain Tumor Center at Duke University in Raleigh.

"It's a very rare form of cancer," Richard said. "It's very aggressive, but it's very treatable.

"They feel like they can completely wipe the cancer out. Naturally, it's going to take them a little while to do it."

Waltrip looks ahead. Two-time 500 winner Michael Waltrip thought he might be headed for victory lane, this time as a car owner.

Martin Truex Jr., in his debut with Michael Waltrip Racing, led three laps and was in second place for the second-to-last restart six laps before the finish.

"I'll be honest, I didn't do a very good job focusing at the end in my car because I was so concerned about maybe him winning," said Waltrip, who finished 18th.

Waltrip, who won in 2001 and '03, cut back to a part-time schedule as he heads for retirement but said of the 500: "It's not my last one, I don't think."