"As far as racing with Brad out there, you really lose sight of who is in what car," Johnson said. "It's just somebody between you and the trophy. It could have been anybody."
Once Johnson cleared Keselowski on the last restart he had a breakaway lead with Greg Biffle and Patrick behind him. But as the field closed in on the checkered flag, Earnhardt finally made his move, just too late and too far behind to get close enough to the lead.
Earnhardt wound up second for the third time in the last four years. But with all the crashes the Hendrick cars have endured in restrictor-plate races — teammate Kasey Kahne was in the first accident Sunday — team owner Rick Hendrick was just fine with the finish.
"We have a hard time finishing these races. Boy, to run 1-2, man, what a day," Hendrick said. Jeff Gordon, who was a contender early, faded late to 20th.
And Johnson considered himself lucky to be the one holding the trophy at the end.
"Man, it's like playing the lottery; everybody's got a ticket," he said. "I've struck out a lot at these tracks, left with torn-up race cars. Today we had a clean day."
Mark Martin was third in a Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota. Keselowski, who overcame two accidents earlier in the race, wound up fourth in Penske Racing's new Ford. Ryan Newman was fifth in a Chevy for Stewart-Haas Racing and was followed by Roush-Fenway Racing's Greg Biffle, who was second on the last lap but was shuffled back with Patrick to finish sixth.
Regan Smith was seventh for Phoenix Racing, while Patrick, Michael McDowell and JJ Yeley rounded out the top 10.
Patrick was clearly disappointed with her finish. When the race was on the line, she was schooled by Earnhardt, who made his last move and blocked any chance she had.
Still, Patrick became the first woman in history to lead laps in the 500 when she passed Michael Waltrip on a restart on Lap 90. She stayed on the point for two laps, then was shuffled back to third. She ended up leading five laps, another groundbreaking moment for Patrick, who as a rookie in 2005 became the first woman to lead the Indianapolis 500 and now is the 13th driver to lead laps in both the Daytona 500 and the Indy 500.
"Dale did a nice job and showed what happens when you plan it out, you drop back and get that momentum. You are able to go to the front," Patrick said. "I think he taught me something. I'm sure I'll watch the race and there will be other scenarios I see that can teach me, too."
Earnhardt was impressed, nonetheless.
"She's going to make a lot of history all year long. It's going to be a lot of fun to watch her progress," he said. "Every time I've seen her in a pretty hectic situation, she always really remained calm. She's got a great level head. She's a racer. She knows what's coming. She's smart about her decisions. She knew what to do today as far as track position and not taking risks. I enjoy racing with her."
Johnson, one of three heavyweight drivers who took their young daughters to meet Patrick — "the girl in the bright green car" — after she won the pole in qualifications, tipped his cap, too.
"I didn't think about it being Danica in the car," Johnson said. "It was just another car on the track that was fast. That's a credit to her and the job she's doing."
The field was weakened by an early nine-car accident that knocked out race favorite Kevin Harvick and sentimental favorite Tony Stewart.
Harvick had won two support races coming into the 500 to cement himself as the driver to beat, but the accident sent him home with a 42nd place finish.
Stewart, meanwhile, dropped to 0-for-15 in one of the few races the three-time NASCAR champion has never won.
"If I didn't tell you I was heartbroken and disappointed, I'd be lying to you," Stewart said.
That accident also took former winner Jamie McMurray, his Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Juan Pablo Montoya, and Kasey Kahne out of contention.