Promising Signs At Daytona

By Dan Norris

DAYTONA BEACH, FLA.- - Speedweeks 2006 started off well for Jeff Gordon and the DuPont team. Speed was shown during testing, as well as one of the best paint jobs on a test car. This clearly gave the number 24 confidence in their Daytona 500 chances. When it came time for qualifying, Gordon drove his way to a second place starting spot. This locked him into the front row with Jeff Burton. Caught up in a minor accident with a punctured oil cooler in the Budweiser Shootout, Gordon was still brimming with confidence in the 24 car, and his team. They were running well, and were becoming known as the team to beat.

Then it came time for the Gatorade dual 150’s. Gordon really did not need to run this race, as he was already locked in to the second starting position, but the 24 bunch used this race as a test session in actual race conditions. Gordon started on the pole for the second of the two races, and did not relinquish that position for more than twenty laps or so. Winning his 150, Gordon skyrocketed on the "favorites" lists from every fantasy outlet you could find. Given his past successes at restrictor plate tracks and his show of quality equipment during Speed weeks, why shouldn’t he?

On Sunday, the green flag dropped on the field of 43 cars to begin the Daytona 500. Gordon kept pace with Jeff Burton, the pole sitter, for a number of the opening laps. On lap 24-- yes, it was 24-- Gordon took the lead of the race away from Elliot Saddler who also had a good showing during Speedweeks. Sadly, it didn’t last too long. Lap 25 showed Matt Kenseth as the leader. Gordon did eventually retake the lead, but it was lost again on lap 48, setting up a lap 49 run-in with Tony Stewart. A tight condition slid the 24 car up the track in front of Stewart, who arguably could have given Gordon a little more room. The two cars made contact slightly with each other, and then more than slightly with the outside wall, damaging both. Neither car went a lap down despite multiple pit-stops for repairs. Call it pathetic fallacy, but the mist that began to fall around the Daytona seemed to be crying for Jeff, until that point, still a clear favorite for the win.

Gordon was quick to take only half of the blame for the accident, but as the NBC broadcasters said, it seemed that Stewart wanted to give Gordon 100% of the blame. This was not the only incident that Stewart was to be involved with that day. Lap 80 saw Carl Edwards, Kyle Petty, J. J. Yeley, Jeff Green and Joe Nemechek crash, ending their laps in contention. Jeff Gordon ran over a piece of debris from this wreck which forced him down pit road for further repairs. The repairs to Stewart’s car seemed to go a bit better than the ones made to Gordon’s. Stewart made short work of most of the field, leaving Gordon near the back of the pack, but still very much on the lead lap. This most likely had much to do with Gordon losing third gear in his transmission. Crew chief Steve Letarte seemed sure that the transmission would hold.

The 24 moved up to 23rd on lap 130, steadily showing improvement. Some laps later would show Gordon in the top 10 once again. The hopes of every Gordon fan were lifted…momentarily. Jamie McMurray gets into Kurt Busch on lap 187 sending him across the track, and bouncing off the 24 car. Though the contact did not appear too disastrous, it was clear that Jeff needed to come down pit road once again for damage control, under caution. This moved him to the rear of the field one more time, and out of contention for more than a top-30 finish. Two more cautions would fly before the race was finished. The first was on lap 197 involving the number 26 of Jamie McMurray which Kurt Busch seemed so upset about in an on camera interview. The second caution came during the ensuing green-white-checker finish for a crash on the very last lap, 203. These untimely cautions relegated the 24 car to a dismal 28th place showing at the Great American Race.

There was one ray of sunshine for Gordon, however. The car that he owns won the race. Jimmie Johnson held off Casey Mears and Ryan Newman to win the race for the first time. Johnson’s win brings a sixth Daytona trophy to the Hendrick Motorsports team. In a post race interview, Gordon was proud of the way his team fought back in the face of all that happened to him that day, he didn’t give up on his team, and his team didn’t give up on him. If we continue to see that kind of dedication from the 24 bunch this season, perhaps the drive for five will, at long last, finally be completed.

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