Though ganged up on by the rest of the field, Jeff Gordon won Daytona
After repeatedly being squeezed, blocked, gang-passed and left hanging out of the drafting lines over the first 335 miles of Sunday's Daytona 500, Jeff Gordon calmly radioed to his crew, "We've got no friends out here."
"Yeah," replied his crew chief, Ray Evernham, "but you knew that."
That Gordon overcame that disadvantage—in a race in which power-sapping restrictor plates make the drafting off and pushing of other drivers essential to winning—made his second Daytona 500 victory in the past three years all the more satisfying. "I felt about the loneliest out there today that I've ever felt," said Gordon, who earned $2,172,246 for his day's work in NASCAR's season-opening and most prestigious event. "There were times when [packs of drafting cars] were right behind me, and I thought, Oh, yeah, they're going to give me that aerodynamic push right on by whoever I was trying to pass. Then—pheeooo!—they'd just go away. They'd push me enough to help me get side-by-side with a car, and then they'd make sure I was left out there by myself. But you know what? I don't expect any different. [The loneliness felt] almost like an honor."
Most satisfying to Gordon was that he held off the craftiest efforts of tough old Dale Earnhardt as they came to the checkered flag. But Gordon's most daring move-arguably the most brilliant in all 41 runnings of the 500—was his dive onto the apron at Turn 1, underneath leader Rusty Wallace and almost into the rear end of a lapped car driven by Ricky Rudd, with 10 laps remaining.
Gordon's zigzag past Rudd and Wallace, which came and went before the naked eye like the jagged path of lightning, would be called "really foolish" by an exasperated Wallace after the race. "It could have taken a lot of people out—and killed some people too," he said. "It's something that can lose you a lot of respect from your competitors."
Respect? The dissing of Gordon, 27, has been relentless since Wallace and Earnhardt razzed him terribly for weeping over his first win, in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte in 1994. Sunday's shunning was simply the continuation of a running NASCAR contest that has boiled down to two sides: Gordon versus the rest of the field.
Throughout the race, Gordon, who has won three of the last four Winston Cup championships, was rebuffed by tag teams and gangs of tag teams: Wallace and teammate Jeremy Mayfield; Earnhardt and teammate Mike Skinner; the Yates Racing tandem of Dale Jarrett and Kenny Irwin; and combinations of the above.
Surprisingly, however, during a caution that began on Lap 175, Gordon thought he had finally found a friend, the unlikeliest one of all: Earnhardt. Gordon and Earnhardt were 10th and eighth, respectively, after pitting for tires and fuel during the caution while the leading tandem of Wallace and Mayfield opted not to pit. After a consultation between the Gordon and Earnhardt crews, Evernham notified Gordon that "Dale wants to work with you."
"I'll help him all the way up to second place," Gordon replied "I'd love to work with him."