Gordon had all the right moves
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- The third time around? Jeff Gordon's victory in the 47th Daytona 500 -- the third of his career -- proved every bit as rewarding for the driver of the No. 24 Dupont Chevrolet because, quite simply, he earned it just as he had his previous two.
"You know what? When I think of Daytona victories here, especially the two Daytona 500s, they all came down to something that you had to do," Gordon said. "Something out of the ordinary, to make a risky move, to do something to get the victory. It was not given to us. It wasn't something that was easy. It took hard work and it took, like I say, risk-taking."
Risks such as the one Gordon took in 1997 when he tugged on Superman's cape, punting the late Dale Earnhardt on the backstretch and sending the Intimidator careening out of the race. Risks such as the one he took in 1999 when he went toe-to-toe with Rusty Wallace in a high-speed game of chicken as they raced through the trioval side by side.
So what risks did he take Sunday in finishing ahead of runner-up Kurt Busch and third-place finisher Dale Earnhardt Jr., last year's winner?
"The risk I took was when I was in second behind [Tony] Stewart and I had Junior behind me," said Gordon, who was in desperate need of drafting help at the time. "I knew Junior was not going to go with me. He had already said he wasn't. And he gave me a big push. I had momentum. I went outside of [Stewart's] 20 car, and he went with the 20 car. That was a risk that I was willing to take to try to win the race, even though I might've ended up finishing 10th."
Taking a bold outside move, Gordon went high in Turn 2 and got around Earnhardt to take the lead for good on Lap 198.
"You know, it worked out for me," Gordon said. "To be in that outside lane I think was the best place for me to be. Luckily, I had some guys up there that came and gave me some help, like Jimmie Johnson, the 10 car, and a couple of others. You know, to me that kind of won us the race."
When Kasey Kahne brushed the wall in Turn 2 to prompt the 11th and final caution for debris removal on Lap 199, it forced the race to exceed its 200-lap distance, necessitating a green-white-checkered finish.
Gordon, though, held off the hard-charging Earnhardt, largely because of the bump-draft assistance he received from Busch, the defending NASCAR Nextel Cup champion. Busch might have seemed an unlikely source of support after he had bumped Gordon in the Gatorade Duel 150s last Thursday, which led to a poor finish and subsequent start in the middle of the 43-car field (Busch 13th and Gordon 15th).
"Jeff and I, we've developed a little bit of a relationship," said Busch, who sought out the four-time NASCAR champ after winning the inaugural Chase for the NASCAR Nextel Cup. "I was very anxious in our 150 to go to the front. I gave him a little bump. He didn't like it. We both ended up finishing sixth and seventh in our 150. At the starting grid [Sunday], I told him, `I'll work with you today as long as you don't run into my front bumper like that anymore.' "
Busch kept his word.
"I told him afterward that I had an opportunity to pass him at the end," Busch said. "I told him that we would have ended up probably two-wide, three-wide, four-wide coming off Turn 4, but that I decided to stick behind him because I knew my chances of winning, and clearing the 24, weren't all that great. So I protected him at the end.
"I just wanted him to feel relieved that I helped him out, and that he owes us one a little bit, I guess."
In winning the Nextel Cup Series opener, Gordon gave his bid for a fifth NASCAR title a roaring start.
"Let's not let a Daytona 500 victory fool us," said Gordon, who finished third in last year's title race. "I mean, I love this. This is amazing. It's great to get the moment and start the season off right. But this guarantees nothing as far as the championship is concerned. We're going to find out a lot more what we're really made of when we came out of California next week."
Since 1977, Gordon is the only driver to go on to win the championship after winning the Daytona 500, doing so in 1997.
"It feels great. It's awesome," Gordon said. "It's been a while since I got a season started like this. I think we've got an incredible team this year. I think we've got a team that's capable of winning the championship.
"But only the next 25 races are going to really tell us what we've got in store."