J. Gordon finishes 12th despite not challenging for leadPosted: Sunday February 16, 2003 10:47 PM
DAYTONA BEACH, Florida (AP) -- For the first time in three years, Jeff Gordon didn't lead a lap in the Daytona 500.
He never challenged the cars in the front, either, finishing 12th in Sunday's rain-shortened race. A two-time 500 champion, Gordon hasn't finished in the top five since his 1999 victory.
"We had a fast race car, and the longer we ran, the better we were," Gordon said. "I made a move, it didn't work out and I fell back to 12th."
Gordon was hoping to move up to help teammate and protege Jimmie Johnson, who was trying to fend off eventual winner Michael Waltrip. But Waltrip took the lead, and Johnson fell back to third in the race shortened to 109 laps by rain.
Of course, Gordon fell even further behind.
"I tried to make a move to get up to Jimmie Johnson so we could push one another, but guys didn't want to go with me," Gordon said. "But you don't expect them to."
At least his finish was better than the past two years, when he was 30th and 34th.
Harvick battles back
Starting in the back hardly made a difference for Kevin Harvick.
The fiery driver for Richard Childress Racing finished fourth in the rain-shortened Daytona 500 Sunday, charging from the rear of the 43-car field. He was supposed to start 31st, but an engine change before the race made him give up that spot.
"The car was fast enough to where it would come right from the back of the pack," Harvick said. "It's still hard to get through the pack, though."
Driving one of the few cars that appeared capable of matching winner Michael Waltrip, Harvick had mixed feelings about not being able to complete the distance. He wasn't around for the end last year, helping trigger an 18-car wreck and finishing 36th.
"The competitor in me wants to have it go back to green, but obviously that is not going to happen," Harvick said. "I really think we had the car to win the Daytona 500."
Childress was happy to take the fourth and move on to Rockingham next week.
"A lot of things can happen at Daytona," he said.
Good start for Martin
Having a backup car and also starting from the back of the field didn't hurt Mark Martin, either.
Martin finished fifth, the second time in five years he's been in the top five, even though his Ford didn't have the speed to pass the front-running Chevrolets of Waltrip, Harvick or Dale Earnhardt Jr.
"Let me tell you something, for me winning with that car I'd have had to have a gun and a mask," he said. "That wouldn't have been right, so to run fifth was really awesome.
"All of the Fords have an enormous amount of work to do to even get in the hunt. There was no one that had a chance to win with a Ford."
He had to use the car he drove in the Bud Shootout last weekend after a last-lap brush with the wall in his 125-mile qualifying race.
"I really hated this car, but we actually learned some things throughout the week that made our cars a little bit better," Martin said. "We were not competitive with those ... Chevys. We didn't have a chance, period. So to run fifth is pretty darn good."
Ryan Newman crawled out of his side window unharmed after a crash that sent his car flipping through the infield grass early in the race.
"We went for a heck of a ride," he said. "I was just hanging on."
Newman was bumped by Ken Schrader, then bounced off the wall before rolling 3 1/2 times and landed on its roof. After safety workers reached the car, Newman climbed from his window and waved several times to the cheering crowd.
"I've still got dirt in my teeth and I had a wad of sod in my lap," said Newman, the 2002 rookie of the year. "Disney World doesn't have anything like this."
Newman was treated in the infield care center, where crew chief Matt Borland sprinted to meet him. He was later joined by his father before riding a golf cart to his motor home.
"My feelings are hurt and I'll be sore [Monday]," Newman said. "The good thing is I'm all in one piece."
The entire rear axle assembly was torn off the car. NASCAR officials took the unusual step of impounding the Dodge in a fenced-in area with blue tarps obstructing any view.
"There were no wheels on it. We wanted to get a good look at it and try to figure out what happened," said Gary Nelson, NASCAR's director of competition. "It's not really supposed to come apart like that."
Bad bad for Green
Pole-sitter Jeff Green lost the lead before completing a lap, then steadily dropped back through the field.
His day got much worse later.
Green crashed out of the race, cutting a tire and spinning into the wall on lap 96. Jimmy Spencer also was involved in the wreck, and neither driver was able to return.
"I guess it just wasn't meant to be," Green said.
Green pulled into the lead at the start, with Richard Childress Racing teammate Robby Gordon on his bumper. But when the cars reached the end of the backstretch, Gordon went high and Michael Waltrip went low, dropping Green to third.
Two lines of traffic continued to blow past Green, and he eventually fell all the way to 42nd in the 43-car field.
He never got back near the front, and his Chevrolet was slightly damaged in a three-car wreck on lap 58. Ryan Newman and Ken Schrader made contact in Turn 4, and Newman's Dodge flipped through the infield grass.
Green's crew repaired the car during a pit stop, and he was climbing back through the field when his tire blew.
"We really got our car a lot better," Green said. "We were really way off. I don't know why we were that way."
The car slid up the banking and pinched Spencer into the wall, too, before sliding back across the track and stopping on the apron.
"I was right behind him. I didn't have anywhere to go," Spencer said. "It was just my luck."
For the second consecutive year, a part-time team owned by James Finch put a car in the top 10.
Mike Wallace came home ninth Sunday, a year after Geoffrey Bodine finished third.
"You've got the best 43 teams in the world here and the best 43 drivers in the world, and we finished ahead of 34 of them," Wallace said.
The run capped a solid week by Wallace, who doesn't have a full-time ride. He was sixth in the Truck race Friday, then finished fourth in the Busch Series Koolerz 300 Saturday.
"This week has been one of the few times I've ever been to SpeedWeeks when everything went right," Wallace said. "I haven't torn up anything I drove."
His finish could've been much better, though.
"James told me if I won the Daytona 500, he wanted the trophy and I could have all the money," Wallace said.
Jack Sprague was the top rookie -- 14th in his first Daytona 500.
It was quite a difference from when he helped cause a four-car wreck in the week's first drafting practice. Several drivers criticized Sprague, saying he made a rookie mistake.
The three-time Truck series champion came back strong Sunday, staying out of trouble to post the best Winston Cup finish of his career.
"I was last three or four times. I was in the top 15 three or four times," Sprague said. "It just so happened when the rain decided to sock us in, I was 14th."
He wasn't in the mood to discuss the practice crash, though.
"I'm not going to talk about it anymore," Sprague said, before adding: "I could have stopped the situation from happening, but I didn't start it. But I learned a lot through that whole ordeal, how some of these guys race."
Since rookies carry a yellow sticker on the back bumpers of their cars, other drivers can easily spot them. That was hindrance for Sprague finding a drafting partner.
"Nobody wants to help the dude with the yellow stripe," he said. "These guys have been through it before. I'm going to go through it. That's cool, because I'm going to put somebody else through it later."