J. Gordon: third in hand

He's 5th to take race at least 3 times

Victory is honor to victims of Hendrick plane crash

Kurt Busch finishes second

Daytona 500

February 21, 2005|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - The laps remaining had dwindled to three when car owner Rick Hendrick came on driver Jeff Gordon's radio.

"It's time to go," Hendrick said to his driver, whose No. 24 Chevrolet was running second to Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his No. 8 Chevrolet.

"Yes, sir, it is," said Gordon, who turned up the jets and won the Daytona 500 yesterday for the third time and for the first time since 1999.

The victory, which came in the first overtime race here, enabled Gordon to join Dale Jarrett and Bobby Allison as three-time winners of the event.

Only Richard Petty, with seven wins, and Cale Yarborough, with four, have more.

The race is the first of the new Nextel Cup season and comes after an offseason of reorganization at Hendrick Motorsports, which lost 10 family members, business associates and friends in a plane crash last October.

"I personally think of all those people we've lost every day," Hendrick said. "Winning this race is a way to honor those we love and miss."

Said Gordon: "Everyone in our organization has been motivated by the idea of honoring them. And this win is dedicated to those we lost and their families."

Before coming to Daytona, Hendrick said, he didn't want anyone feeling sorry for his teams and making excuses for them. Given the way they performed yesterday, he doesn't have to worry.

With three laps to go and with Hendrick's words ringing in his ears, Gordon stepped on the gas. He moved his car to the outside of the track and got a boost of power from his teammate Jimmie Johnson, who finished fifth, and flew past Earnhardt, who had won here last year.

Gordon took the lead on Lap 198 - just as a caution flag came out.

This season, NASCAR has promised to make a single attempt to have a two-lap, green-flag finish to its Nextel Cup races when possible, and after cleaning up the 2.5-mile speedway after a wreck on the backstretch, it restarted the race.

The restart on Lap 201 was fast, with Earnhardt's Chevy within inches of Gordon's bumper. Gordon wasn't sure he could hold on, but when he looked in his mirror, he saw Kurt Busch making a pass for second and Johnson and Tony Stewart in a side-by-side battle going into the first turn.

"I have to thank Kurt Busch for getting by [Earnhardt]," Gordon said. "We had a little trouble in the 150s [on Thursday, when Busch gave Gordon an unwelcome bump], but he worked well with me today and once he got past [Earnhardt], I knew I could hold off Kurt because he wasn't getting any help from Jimmie or Tony."

Gordon, 33, averaged 135.173 mph, which is .348 mph slower than the original 500 run in 1959 and won by Lee Petty. The average speed was slowed by 11 caution flags.

Gordon said his team operated under the radar here all week after not winning the pole position for yesterday's race.

"We were a little disappointed pole day, because I felt like we had a car capable of sitting on that front row," he said. "But we stayed calm and didn't show everything we had. Not many people looked at us, and that was kind of nice.

"But in our hearts, I think we all knew we had a car capable of doing what we did today."

It was a surprising win to some of the sold-out crowd of 180,000 at Daytona International Speedway. They had seen Stewart dominate and lead more than half the race. And, for more than half the race, no one seemed able to do anything but follow the leader.

But over the last 25 laps, the competition heated up. Gordon, who counts this Daytona 500 as his 70th career victory, began to pressure Stewart, sticking his nose to the inside, pulling up beside him on a restart, just to let Stewart know trouble was as close as a few inches away.

Yet even Gordon and Hendrick seemed surprised by the outcome.

"I still don't know how we won," Hendrick said. "I was afraid to get too excited. I was just waiting for the end."

At the end, it was even a surprise to Gordon, who said he thought Earnhardt, who came from nowhere to take the lead on Lap 195, had it won.

"I was looking for him in my mirrors all day," said Gordon. "Every time a caution came out, I was looking for him and I'd look at the scoreboard to see where he was. I thought Junior was having some problems, engine problems or handling problems.

"And then he flipped the switch and that thing took off there at the end. I was like, `OK, here he is.' I never doubted my team, but when he got the lead, I had a momentary doubt. I thought we didn't have anything to match his speed. But then I recovered and I kept trying."

Even those who don't much like Gordon have to admit he never gives up. The first time he won the 500, in 1997, he beat his own teammates, Terry Labonte and Ricky Craven. In 1999, he caused everyone to catch his breath in alarm as he barreled down the front stretch into Turn 1 with a slow-running Ricky Rudd directly in his path.

Yesterday, he took another risk, by going to the outside when running second, between Stewart and Earnhardt, knowing Earnhardt would follow Stewart, leaving him alone in the outside lane.

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