Two weeks ago, I wrote in this space about how Jeff Gordon was slowly ascending to the role of elder statesmen in this series. The way people are announcing retirements lately and hiring teenage heartthrobs, Gordon may be the oldest full-time driver as early as 2008.
But despite that upcoming label to his career, there is no doubt Gordon still has many years of racing left to go. This was a driver and a team who would have won the 2004 Nextel Cup championship with ease under the old system, and who still lost out on his fifth title by a mere 16 points under the new one. Among his five wins last season included a record fourth victory at what’s becoming a close second to the “Great American Race,” the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis, and his record ninth career road course win in the modern era. Love him or hate him, this much is clear; Jeff Gordon is still running at the front of the pack in most every Cup race he enters, and that doesn’t appear to be stopping anytime soon.
Which is why, team guy that he is, “Wonderboy” that he’s been portrayed, Gordon had to be a little miffed at all the prerace attention being given…to teammate Jimmie Johnson and virtually everyone else in the field. I can’t remember a time Gordon was talked about as little prior to the Daytona 500 as he was this week. The prerace segments on Fox today focused on retiring driver Rusty Wallace, young guns Jamie McMurray and Kasey Kahne, as well as Tony Stewart.
Beyond that, the main storylines for 2005 being talked about have had little, if anything to do with Gordon and the Rainbow Warriors. Will Dale Jr. react to his new crew chief change and qualify for the Chase? How will Mark Martin and Rusty Wallace do in their final full-time seasons? And will Johnson, hand-picked by Gordon for his Hendrick team during the 2001 season (which people sometimes forget), finally get over the hump and claim his first Nextel Cup title? If you asked 100 people in the garage area who was the favorite to win this race today, as well as the 2005 Nextel Cup Championship, the vast majority would have said Hendrick teammate Johnson. Asked for their second choice for a Daytona winner should Johnson not pull through, they would have likely said Earnhardt Jr. Or Michael Waltrip. Or Thursday’s Gatorade Duel winner Tony Stewart.
Turns out most of the prognosticators were right today; most of the pre-race favorites actually did indeed live up to the hype. Michael Waltrip led over 40 laps and was a late race contender until the engine blew on lap 161, and Stewart was arguably the fastest car in the field until being forced from the lead after Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s lap 195 pass. And Jimmie Johnson delivered on expectations, overcoming a pit road speeding penalty to surge into the top 5 past the midpoint of the race, and remain there until the checkered flag.
Gordon, on the other hand, had continued to fly under the radar up until Sunday, with a relatively quiet but focused Speedweeks. He’s not competing in the IROC Series for the first time in years, and failed to add a Bud Shootout or a Duel victory to his resume in 2005. But garage insiders continually insisted that Gordon had the fastest car, and Gordon proved it early and often, taking the lead with ease on Sunday before yielding to Stewart toward the race’s midpoint.
And as the race wound down, with both Gordon and Johnson in the position to get to victory lane and stake their claim at the top of this fast-growing sport, it was the DuPont Chevrolet making all the right moves at the front, while Johnson found himself in the wrong places at the wrong times, gradually being sucked into the back end of the top five. When the checkered flag fell, it was Gordon driving his DuPont Chevrolet into victory lane for the third time, while Johnson was busy nearly wrecking on the speedway with Tony Stewart, the second controversy he’d been involved with during the week following his wreck with Kevin Harvick in the Duel race. And it was Gordon paying tribute as the veteran leader of Hendrick to those lost in the plane crash tragedy, while it was Johnson providing an explanation to why a Daytona 500 victory so many thought was a no-brainer, had instead slipped through its grasp; all that before heading to the NASCAR trailer for another meeting with Mike Helton.
No doubt teammate Johnson will have his day of both championships and Daytona 500 victories, and one day those will happen with Gordon as his team owner, not as a competitor on and off the track. But judging by the energy and enthusiasm of the 24 team on this day, particularly from Gordon himself, leads one to believe that the team felt that its decade of dominance in the sport needed to be reasserted. And it was the driver of the DuPont Chevrolet that seemed pleased to remind everyone, most of all his good friend and teammate Johnson, that the stiffest challenger for the 2005 title for Johnson may not be Busch, Stewart, or Kenseth, but Gordon himself. For once, NASCAR’s first young superstar was the one sneaking up on the field and making his presence felt, taking the thunder away from his own young superstar who nearly had the trophy engraved for him before the race was even run.
“You know, we were kind of under the radar (this week),” said Gordon in his post-race press conference. “Not many people looked at us. But that was kind of nice. But in our hearts, I think we all knew we had a car capable of doing what we did today.”
Who’s who at Hendrick Motorsports had been muddled as of late, but on Sunday, the pecking order became quite clear; it’s Gordon who’d been there, done that, while Johnson’s still in the category of almost, not quite.
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