Daytona Speedweeks 2004

DAYTONA BEACH, FLA.- - Jeff Gordon's ten day build-up to the Daytona 500 features an array of practice sessions, pole qualifying, an exhibition race, and a qualifying race. Following are daily reports from the track, along with quotes from the four-time NASCAR champion.

-February 6
-February 7
-February 8
-February 9
-February 10
-February 11
-February 12
-February 13
-February 14
-February 15


Sunday, Feb 15: Teammates leading the way | 24nFront
Team picture | Waltrip upside down | In the draft
Pushing JJ | On the outside line | JG in thought
Middle school | Tracking down Kenseth | Group chat

Saturday, Feb 14: Morning interviews

Friday, Feb 13: New nose installed Rebuilding the front of the car

Thursday, Feb 12: On pit road | Teammates | Racing with Busch and Gaughan
Side-by-side | On the inside | Drafting behind Ward | Early stages of the race |

Tuesday, Feb 10: Surrounded in the draft | After practice

Saturday, Feb 7: The start | Staying ahead | Tight pack | Bump draft
Halftime break | Start of segment two | Running in third | Following JJ
Three-wide | Inside line | Outside line | Racing mid-pack
'Working' with Martin | Leading the pack | Jeff in front of the pack
HMS leads the way | Racing with Junior | Driver introductions

Friday, Feb 6: On track | Jeff and Jimmie | Jeff and Dale Jr
Sparks flying | In line | Tracking Bill | Split? | Full moon

Thursday, Feb 5: Prep time | Inspection | Template check

Friday, February 6

Jeff Gordon took to the 2.5-mile superspeedway for two practice sessions for the Bud Shootout. The Bud Shootout car is different than the car Gordon will drive in the season-opening Daytona 500. In the first session of the day he had a minor on-track incident which forced him to the garage. The oil tank was overflowed and the car began smoking. After a brief garage interlude, Gordon returned to the drafting pack on the speedway. His fast lap of 187.84 miles per hour was 8th out of 19 drivers in the Bud Shootout event.
In the second session, held under the lights, gave the drivers a chance to simulate race conditions in a tight drafting pack at night. In the draft, Dale Earnhardt Jr set the fast time with a lap over 191 miles per hour. Gordon had a best lap of 189.41 miles per hour-- good enough for seventh fastest as speeds picked up in the cooler night air. He drafted with Jimmie Johnson in the early part of the session, and concluded the one-hour session drafting with Dale Jarrett. In the final ten minutes he dropped to the rear of the drafting line to see how his car would respond. Trial and error... that's practice in a nutshell.

Jeff's comments on Friday

"We just had a little problem with the overflow, the oil tank. We may have had a little too much (oil) in there. But I think we have it figured out now. I felt bad for the guys behind me who got sprayed in oil. It was fine for me. I feel good now that I think we know what it was. So we're good to go. The car feels great, I'm real happy with it. The car has good speed, and we're just working on the handling. These tires are a lot different than we've had here, so we're just trying to get an indication of what we're going to have in the race."

Discuss the conservative approach to practice
"This is the place where you don't need to really take any chances in practice. You've got a big race tomorrow and there's plenty of action going to be going to be happening there tomorrow. You just need to feel out your car, and there's no reason to do anything crazy out there. But we've still got a little more practice left to go."

Is there a big difference between afternoon and night practices?
"Not a big difference. But it will be a better indication of what we're going to have tomorrow night. I mean it was pretty hot and slick out there during the middle of the day, so it's going to be a little better. Sometimes it takes a little while for that track temperature to really cool down."

Even though the Bud Shootout car is different than the Daytona 500 car, does it help to get a little more time on the track?
"It does in some ways. It's nice to get out there and just get a feel for the tires. But the cars are a little bit different than what we have for the 500. Sometimes you might have cars that are pretty close. But our 500 car is definitely better. It has a little bit different aero package than what this Bud Shootout car has. So I think you can learn a certain amount. But you really have to wait for the 125s and practice with the 500 car before you can really get an indication of what it's going to be like. "

Saturday, February 7

A pair of two hour practice sessions filled the docket during daylight hours. Jeff Gordon took to the track in car "24A" for the Daytona 500 and turned the 11th fastest lap in the morning practice. By and large the sessions consisted of the drivers making solo laps devoid of the draft. "We're about a tenth off of where we want to be," Gordon said. Following Sunday's pole qualifying session, drafting packs will be the highlight of the mid-week practices.

Bud Shootout
What used to be a simple 20-lap sprint race on a lazy Sunday afternoon has turned into a two-segment Saturday night special. A 20-lap segment, a ten minute "halftime" break, and a final 50-lap sprint to the finish. The story before the race was that Dale Earnhardt Jr was starting at the rear of the field due to the luck of the draw. Though as the race began, it was clear that Earnhardt Jr was not totally satisifed with his car. He made his way up to fifth but seemed to lack the ability to make a hard charge to the front characteristic of his previous restrictor plate victories. At the front of the field, Jeremy Mayfield and Jeff Gordon ran side-by-side for the opening laps. Gordon led the first one and Mayfield led the second. On lap 3, Jamie McMurray dove to the inside of Mayfield after the start/finish line. Gordon, aided by a draft from behind by Kevin Harvick, took the race lead. The DuPont Chevrolet paced the field until lap 17 when McMurray got a bump draft from Earnhardt Jr on the backstretch to propel his Havoline Dodge into the lead. At the finish line, McMurray crossed first followed by a tight battle between Gordon and Harvick. "The car drove good," Gordon said after the first segment. "We were out front. When they get side-by-side like that behind you, it's just a guessing game. You try to hold them off. But when they get a run like that it's hard to keep them back there. Hopefully we can get ourselves in that position again and do it differently. Or get in a position to make a run on those guys. We had a real good car, I'm pretty happy.
After the segment break, the final 50-lap sprint began with McMurray and Gordon on the front row. McMurray received a drafting push from Harvick at the outset (lap 21) to pull ahead of Gordon. On the backstretch Harvick cut in front of Gordon to take the runner-up spot. On lap 24, Gordon went to the high line coming off turn four and was hung out to dry. Jimmie Johnson, along with Earnhardt Jr, slipped past as Gordon backtracked to seventh place. Gordon regrouped to pull up to fifth behind Johnson on the outside line just two laps later. On lap 30 he appeared to brush the wall slightly coming off turn two. In the drafting pack, Gordon had fallen to eighth but wouldn't be there for long.
He hooked up with Terry Labonte and pushed his Hendrick Motorsports teammate to the lead. Working with Labonte, he held off an outside charge from Earnhardt Jr on lap 35. The Hendrick Motorsports duo ran in single-file alignment until green flag pit stops on lap 49. A problem on the left rear resulted in a 19 second pit stop. From fighting for the lead, Gordon fell to 14th due to one miscue on pit road.
As Gordon worked with Bobby Labonte in the hopes of catching up to the lead pack, the laps began slipping away. However, the complexion of the race changed on lap 59 when race leader Jeremy Mayfield lost control on the inside of Dave Blaney coming off turn two. Both cars slammed the wall to bring out the caution flag. A red flag period followed as the backstretch wall needed minor repairs. Teams took the opportunity to change tires and prepare for the "Cannonball Run" style finish.
Ryan Newman and Kevin Harvick brought the field to the final green flag with seven laps remaining. Gordon worked the middle line to no avail as he fell to 11th in the running order. At the front of the field, Rusty Wallace pushed Harvick into the lead with five laps to go. Gordon moved to the outside line and drafted with Earnhardt Jr up to sixth place. With three laps remaining, Gordon was lined up directly behind Mark Martin looking for one more push to the front. However, if Gordon expected to find a willing ally in Martin, he expected far too much. Gordon was forced to move to the outside as Martin moved out of line. Earnhardt Jr was able to push Dale Jarrett even with Harvick as the field took the white flag.
Jarrett inched ahead of Harvick with a strong push from Earnhardt Jr coming off turn two. At the finish, Jarrett held off Earnhardt Jr to win the Bud Shootout. Gordon battled in a pack of cars coming off turn four and came across the line in sixth place-- a fender behind Mike Skinner and a fender ahead of Tony Stewart. Following the race, Skinner was penalized for passing below the yellow line on the inside of the track as he made a final lap move around Wallace. Skinner was dropped to 15th while those behind him were advanced one position. Just another wild night at Daytona.

Sunday, February 8

Despite turning competitive laps in pre-season testing, as well as during the practice session on Saturday, Jeff Gordon's qualifying lap on Sunday at Daytona International Speedway left him with only the 39th fastest lap out of 44 drivers. "I'm not really sure what happened," Gordon said after qualifying. "We just went through inspection and our heights and everything were really good. We expected to lose two-tenths. But we were running better first laps yesterday than what we were running there. We'll look at the transmission, gear and engine. Obviously something happened. I didn't see much rpm and I knew it wasn't a very good lap while I was running. And I knew it even slowed down, or didn't pick up at all, on the second lap. So, it's pretty disappointing." Gordon will try to salvage a decent starting spot in the Daytona 500 with a strong effort in Thursday's 125-mile qualifying race. He'll start 20th in the first qualifying race on Thursday afternoon-- the worst starting position in the event during his career. Starting behind the 8-ball is a foreign experience for the four-time NASCAR champion at Daytona International Speedway. After all, Gordon has never been in this position before. Last year he started 15th, a career-worst at the time, and finished seventh, earning him the 13th starting position for the Daytona 500. In 11 career starts, Gordon's average career finish in the 125's is fourth. He has 50 laps on Thursday to work his way through the drafting pack to get a solid starting spot for the season-opening race. "Now the work gets easy," he said. "That was the hard work- getting prepared to do those two laps. It's nice to get a good starting position for the 125's, but it really doesn't mean anything. We've got a great team and a great race car. Especially out there on the track as well as it handles and drives. I'm really looking forward to getting that car in the race and working our way through there in the 125's. The nice thing about Daytona is that if you don't qualify well, you've got that qualifying race to get you a good starting position."

Monday, February 9

With no on-track action scheduled for Monday, the day off provided a brief respite in the frenzied action of Speedweeks. Partly cloudy skies with temperatures in the low 70's made outdoor activity a given. The beach was a popular destination for some, with a pit stop at the Cruisin' Cafe-- a mandatory obligation for any race fan on "the beach side." The carnival returns to the track on Tuesday and the pace will pick up as the week progresses. Stormy weather might be on the horizon, but for now it's back to livin' Floridays. Blue skies and ultraviolet rays. Lookin' for better days.

Tuesday, February 10

After turning only the 39th fastest qualifying lap on Sunday, Jeff Gordon returned to the 2.5-mile Daytona International Speedway on Tuesday hoping that his solo lap was a mere anomoly after his team was unable to diagnose a problem with the car. The first practice session saw Gordon turn only the 37th fastest lap in the draft. However, he found the right line in the second session and rocketed to the top of the speed chart with a fast lap at more tha 191 miles per hour. Though his afternoon speed was 4 miles per hour faster, he reported that the car felt comfortable and drove well in both sessions. Finding the right drafting partners apparently made all the difference.
One harrowing moment came when Dale Earnhardt Jr, Jeff Gordon and Larry Foyt were three-wide going into turn three. Jamie McMurray pulled behind Foyt and made a move to an even higher line. Earnhardt Jr sensed a party of four would lead to a melee and wisely backed off. Following practice, Earnhardt Jr had a spirited chat with last year's Rookie of the Year. "He was upset like anyone else would have been," McMurray said. "Five minutes later, I went over to talk to him and he was giggling about it. I went over and apologized." Earnhardt Jr, a few years removed from his own rookie season, is now among the upperclassmen in the sport. "You can run me all over the racetrack in the race and that's OK," he said. "But in practice-- especially when you don't know how good your piece [backup car] is off the trailer-- you don't want to pull it out if you don't have to, and we don't have to. I was kind of upset because it was so foolish. I'm sure I've made a few people scream around here, too, in the past."

Jeff's comments on Tuesday

"The first thing was just to see where the speed was lost and if we could find it and make sure that this car has the speed that it had at one time and it does. We changed a lot of things, but we still don't know exactly happened on Sunday. All I know is that I have a fast race car and I'm having fun with it now. We're just working on handling now. The tires definitely go away fast. Getting the car to work well in the draft and the handling of it is going to be important. We were fast in the first practice. You can't pay attention to any speed charts during drafting. We didn't do a single thing to it. In one practice we're 37th and in the next practice we're first. Being first on the board didn't mean any more or less. It just depends on the draft that you're in. The car has been fine all day - just like it was prior to qualifying. With the tires we've had the last couple of years, it's really just been all about speed. Now there's a lot more strategy that goes into the handling of the car and making sure that you've got a car that you can run wide-open with and run in front with. A lot of guys - probably most of them -- are not going to be able to run wide-open. You're going to have to lift after about 15 or 18 laps. And that's a good thing because we normally have really good handling cars here and the driver comes back into play. It's not just all about horsepower and drag."

Wednesday, February 11

A short one-hour practice session was held in the mid-afternoon as a final tune up before Thursday's Twin 125-mile qualifying races. In a drafting pack, Gordon's top speed was only good enough for 41st fastest. No matter, speed is almost irrelevant in a drafting pack. Come Thursday, finding the right partners and being in the right position as the laps wind down will make all the difference.

Thursday, February 12

Thursday was make-or-break day for Jeff Gordon to get a decent starting spot for the Daytona 500. As it turned out, it was "break." Gordon started in 20th position due to a poor qualifying effort on Sunday. To automatically transfer into the starting field, he would need a top-15 finish in the qualifying race. The day began promising enough with Gordon drafting behind Bobby Labonte on the high line. He moved up to 15th by lap 5. One lap later he ducked low to pass Labonte and take over the 14th position. Battling a tight handling condition, Gordon used both the low and high line from laps 8-12 to find the right position in the draft. However, his efforts came up short as he slipped back to 16th on lap 13. He made his way back up to 13th behind Casey Mears when the only caution flag of the 125-mile race came out on lap 21 when Scott Riggs cut a tire in turn two. Pit stops followed and with it came the turning point of Gordon's day. He came onto pit road in 12th, directly behind Kasey Kahne. As the cars made their way down pit road, Kahne took a late entry into his pit stall resulting in contact from behind from Gordon. Kahne spun around on pit road while Gordon continued to his stall. Cosmetic damage on the front of the DuPont Chevrolet was ignored as a four-tire change sent Gordon back onto the track in 10th place. The restart came on lap 29 as Gordon made a power move to pass Labonte. He hooked up with Ward Burton and was running as high as sixth on lap 31 when problems arose. The damaged front caused the water temperature to take a drastic rise. Fearing a blown engine, Gordon backed off the pace and eventually came to pit road. The crew removed tape from the front of the car to allow more air into the engine compartment, thereby cooling the motor and reducing the water temperature. He returned to the race at the tail end of the lead lap in 21st position. The leaders came up to put him a lap down on lap 35. Dale Earnhardt Jr used the draft from Gordon to pass Michael Waltrip for the race lead on lap 36. Two laps later Earnhardt Jr put Gordon a lap down. Earnhardt Jr went on to win the first 125-mile qualifying race and will start third in the Daytona 500. He easily held off Tony Stewart to take his second career victory in the qualifying race. As for Gordon, a 21st place finish failed to transfer him into the Daytona 500 starting field. Gordon used only his second career provisional start to gain entry into the Daytona 500 lineup-- his worst starting position in ten years. Not the start to 2004 he had hoped for. But there's always Sunday to make things right again.

Jeff's post-race comments

"I felt like I ran into (Kahne), but as it turns out he missed his stall. Or a car was blocking his vision to his stall and he had to check up really abruptly in that outside lane. I just had nowhere to go. I tried to stop from getting into him, but I couldn't. It hurt my day a lot worse than it hurt his, trust me. It just killed the front grill and the water temp was pegged, so we had to pull in and pull tape and the day was over. We were working out way up through there too. I made a bunch of moves at the beginning just trying stuff. Some did work, some didn't. Right there on that restart we got a heck of a push from Dale Jarrett and moved up through there nice. I was real happy. We had a shot at the top-five."

Friday, February 13

Two practice sessions were on the agenda for Friday, but Jeff Gordon would only see the track in the second session. The crew arrived early to make repairs and re-do the nose area of the car after it was damaged in the 125-mile qualifying race on Thursday. The odds on additional repairs being needed sometime in the next few days increased after yesterday's 21st place finish, which resulted in a 39th place starting position in Sunday's race. On an overcast afternoon, Gordon took to the track in the second practice session. He shot to the upper ranks of the speed chart with a lap of 191.52 miles per hour in a tight drafting pack. His speed was 4th fastest overall in the final session. There's no doubt the car is strong in the draft. But it's simple racing luck that will determine Gordon's fate on Sunday.

Saturday, February 14

The final practice session before Sunday's Daytona 500 was held in overcast conditions on Saturday morning. Jeff Gordon's fast lap was 31st fastest, but the car drafted well. He spent the early part of the session leading a pack of cars, then dropped back to draft behind Dale Earnhardt Jr and Jimmie Johnson in the later part of the session. Coming from 39th starting position, the early laps will likely determine the course of Gordon's afternoon. After all, in a tight drafting pack, one slip up can knock out multiple cars. With a 20 mile per hour wind expected with partly cloudy skies on Sunday, handling will be the deciding factor in the race. The preliminaries are over. Tomorrow, it's for keeps.

Jeff's comments from Saturday

"The weather is so much different than it was on Thursday. Tomorrow I think we're going to be in good shape. I feel good about the car. Everything seems to be OK and I'm looking forward to getting it all going. I'm ready to stop practicing and talking about it and trying things and just ready to get out there and go."

"I think they're a little bit soft. They wear a little bit more than what we'd like to see them wear. I'm a little bit concerned if there is a big rain tonight and how green the track will be. That first set of tires will take some abuse. But in some ways, I'll like it better because it brings the driver and the team and the aerodynamics back into the picture a little bit more and gives a team like ours a little bit of an advantage over a lot of guys. I shouldn't say they're 'softer'. A lot of it is in the construction and the way they're built. They wear more and it gives you that sensation that they're softer. For whatever reason they're sliding across the track. All that matters to us is whether they wear or go away. And they certainly do that. They're chemists (Goodyear). They have a lot of ways to make these tires do different things. For us drivers and teams, we only know one thing and that's whether the grip level goes away or stays the same. And the grip level is definitely going away more than in the past."

"I don't want to be starting where I'm starting (provisionsal). But it's just like every Daytona 500 and whether you've got the speed and handling that it takes to get to the front and hold those guys off."

"The handling is really good on the car. I still think we need a bit more speed. There are times out there when I can get to the front and stay there and there are times when it's a little bit more difficult than others. When you're practicing, it's hard to gauge because you have so many cars pulling on the track and pulling off the track. The real test will be tomorrow. I'm looking forward to getting out there and going racing. It's time to stop talking about it and time to stop working on the car. We're going to put our best effort forward and hope that we have a little bit better luck than what we've had the last few races."

"I've never had to start this far back at Daytona, but I definitely know it doesn't matter where you start here. It can be done. I look forward to making it happen. Don't count us out yet."

"Yeah, definitely. Anytime we put all that effort into a race and then we qualified as bad as we did and then we had the bad luck on Thursday in that race. The one good thing about Daytona if you do qualify bad, you have the 125 to fall back on. That didn't work out for us so it's very frustrating. I think we have a really good car and a team that's capable of getting to the front. But certainly that doesn't make it very easy on us to start where we're starting. It's a combination of being back that far and trying to stay out of trouble and not a very good pit selection."


On a day when he started deep in the pack, an 8th place finish is decent. Though somewhat disappointing based on late race manuevers. Jeff Gordon started back in 37th position and dropped to 40th after the first lap. But when the car came up to full speed, he took off toward the front. Running the high line, he moved up to 35th on lap 4. Two laps later he drafted behind Johnny Benson on the outside and moved to 26th place. The first caution came out on lap 7 when Mark Martin's engine blew in turn three. Gordon avoided the smoking car and pulled to the inside avoiding any contact. He came to pit road for for tires and restarted in 21st on lap 12. Gordon hooked up in a tight draft with Ricky Craven on the outside and the pair moved into the top-20 by lap 15.
On lap 17, Gordon made a daring three-wide move in the middle to pass Joe Nemechek and take over the 14th position. He ran behind Kevin Harvick for a lap, then switched over to Bobby Labonte to gain entry into the top-10 on lap 20. Four laps later he was up to 6th locked in a draft behind Jamie McMurray. Since Gordon had pitted during the first caution period, he was able to stay out on the track longer. That worked to his advantage when Dale Earnhardt Jr and Tony Stewart, the race leaders, came to pit road on lap 32. Derrike Cope's crash on lap 35 brought out the caution flag which allowed Gordon to move up to second place on the track. After pit stops he restarted the race in 8th place on lap 39. He stayed in the high line and drafted behind Casey Mears to move up to 6th on lap 42. At the front of the field, Jimmie Johnson battled for the lead with Stewart and Earnhardt Jr. On lap 53, Earnhardt Jr retook the top spot. The break in the draft allowed Gordon to move into the top-five. He passed Matt Kenseth for 4th on lap 57 with help from Mears. Two laps later the caution flag waved for an incident on the backstretch involving Jeff Green, Rusty Wallace, and Ken Schrader. Gordon came onto pit road in 5th, and gained back one position. On the restart he followed Tony Stewart on the outside line and moved up to the runner-up position. Two laps later he fell back to fourth while working with Jimmie Johnson.
On lap 72, a multi-car incident on the backstretch collected eleven cars. Johnny Sauter was running on the inside of Brian Vickers and Michael Waltrip when he lost control coming off turn two. Sauter slammed into Vickers, who put Waltrip in the wall. When Waltrip came off the wall, he hit the right rear of Vickers' Chevrolet and the wreck was on. Waltrip spun onto the grass and flipped over three times. Vickers collected Jamie McMurray and Sterling Marlin. Also involved were Robby Gordon, Johnny Benson, and Ryan Newman. During pit stops, Gordon's crew got him off pit road with the lead. He restarted in the top spot on lap 81 but was passed for the lead by Johnson on lap 84. He fell back to 7th before he was able to get in line and regroup in the drafting line. On lap 95, Gordon moved back into the top-five behind Johnson. The pair hooked up for the next few laps and moved into second and third place behind Stewart. On lap 103, Gordon made a move to the high side and was hung out of the draft. He dropped back to 7th as green flag pit stops began. After the stops he was up to fourth place ahead of Johnson. The Hendrick Motorsports teammates once again drafted toward the lead pack. On lap 119 Gordon took third place from Earnhardt Jr with drafting help from Johnson. However, in the draft, gains are wiped out in a hurry. Gordon dropped back to 10th on lap 125 and patiently got back to the work of getting to the front. Drafting behind Kenseth he moved to 7th on lap 132. Green flag pit stops came on lap 134 with Gordon emerging in fifth place after the cycle of stops. He steadily began gaining on the leaders thanks to a draft from Greg Biffle.
Gordon moved to fourth on lap 153 with a pass on Scott Wimmer and took third from Biffle on lap 156. The final round of green flag pit stops came on lap 162 with Earnhardt Jr and Stewart beating Gordon off of pit road by a wide margin. Wimmer gambled by changing two tires which gave him the lead. However, it was short lived as Stewart and Earnhardt Jr drafted by him with 25 laps remaining. With 19 laps remaining, Earnhardt Jr moved to the inside of Stewart on the backstretch and took the race lead. Gordon, separated from the leaders, fell into the clutches of the second pack led by Harvick. When Harvick pulled to the inside of Gordon, he got drafting help from Johnson to pass Gordon. The line passed by and Gordon dropped to 8th where he finished. At the front of the field, Earnhardt Jr held off Stewart to claim his first Daytona 500 victory-- six years to the day after his father captured his only Daytona 500 win.

Jeff's post-race comments

"Based on the way our week was going, I'm happy with that. We drove up through there and had a great car all day. It's a little disappointing because on that last stop we didn't have any drafting help and no momentum leaving pit road. Then the car got real loose so we fell back to eighth. It's disappointing because I thought we had a third place car. But I'll take a top-ten."

Discuss the handling of the car
"I think the spoiler maybe is making the cars push a little too much and the tires are falling off a lot. From a driver's standpoint I like that I can manuever and make some moves. But you have your hands tied and that's why you saw a lot of single file racing."

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