Monday, July 05, 2004

Jeff Gordon makes it two straight Nextel Cup wins

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) -- Jeff Gordon and Hendrick Motorsports are the new kings of NASCAR plate racing.

Gordon proved Saturday night his victory at Talladega in April was no fluke, leaving the favored Dale Earnhardt Inc. duo of Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Michael Waltrip and everyone else behind in the Pepsi 400 at Daytona International Speedway.

"Wow! Wow! Wow!" Gordon said. "This is a big one. What an awesome show by Hendrick Motorsports."

It was Gordon's second victory in a row, fourth of the season and 68th of his career. He also became the first driver to win this race from the pole since Cale Yarborough in 1981.

Gordon, who wound up leading a race-high 61 laps, gave series leader and teammate Jimmie Johnson a lot of credit.

"He gave me a push out there that no one else out there would have given me," Gordon said. "I owe this win to him and I owe him a push and the next time I'm going to give him one."

The four-time series champion, already the leader among active Nextel Cup drivers in victories at Daytona and Talladega, the tracks where NASCAR requires horsepower-robbing carburetor restrictor plates to keep the cars under 200 mph, came up with his eighth plate victory and second in a row.

At Talladega, Earnhardt, considered by many the guy to beat at every plate race, was mounting a late challenge to Gordon when a caution flag with three laps remaining gave Gordon the victory, bringing a wave of beer cans and seat cushions raining down on the track from unhappy Earnhardt fans.

This time, there was little question. Every time he got behind, Gordon was able to work his way back to the lead.

With Johnson, whose car Gordon owns, giving him a solid push, Gordon's No. 24 Chevrolet took the lead for the final time on the 154th of 160 laps on the 2 1/2-mile oval, passing Tony Stewart and pulling away.

It finished with Johnson 0.143 seconds -- about two car-lengths -- behind, followed by Earnhardt, Kurt Busch, Stewart, Mark Martin, Bobby Labonte, Terry Labonte and rookie Brian Vickers.

Waltrip, who combined with Earnhardt to win five of the previous seven Cup races at Daytona, dominated early, leading five times for 57 laps, but fought an ill-handling car and wound up 13th.

Stewart, who was fined $50,000 earlier in the week for hitting Vickers in a postrace altercation last Sunday at Sonoma, was nowhere near the lead until late in the race. He took the top spot on the last series of pit stops when his Joe Gibbs Racing team put on only two tires while the other leaders took four.

Earnhardt, who had a slow stop and had fallen to eighth, got all the way to second on lap 149 before slipping back into the pack again. Meanwhile, Gordon and Johnson hooked up and went after Stewart, moving past him easily 17 laps from the end.

Michael Waltrip was a contender for the win before slipping to 13th. Credit: Autostock
Johnson, with Earnhardt looming in his mirrors, tried to make a move on Gordon, but couldn't catch him.

"Jeff's on his game and he knows how to do this plate racing," Johnson said.

Earnhardt, who won the Daytona 500 in February, said it just wasn't his day.

"We just didn't have the car to do it and we had a terrible day in the pits today," he said. "To win this race, you've got to be in front. I thought we knew that. We just didn't have enough help, but I don't know if that would have mattered."

Johnson came out of the race with the same 27-point lead over Earnhardt he had going in. Gordon moved within 232 points of the leader.

The race, which began two hours late because of rain, ran without interruption and finished after midnight.


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