Gordon Rolls On In Daytona

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DAYTONA BEACH. Fla. – Don’t look now, but Jeff Gordon doesn’t appear to have lost a step.

The defending NASCAR Winston Cup champion started the 2002 season where he ended 2001: at the head of the field. Gordon got around Jimmie Johnson on the opening lap Thursday of the first of two Gatorade Twin 125-mile qualifying races and led the rest of the way.

Gordon beat Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Ken Schrader to the checkered flag to claim the third starting spot in Sunday’s Daytona 500. The first qualifying race determines odd-numbered positions from third to 29th.

“The guys have done an amazing job working in the offseason, working for Daytona with these new rules,” Gordon said. “It’s pretty evident how a strong our race car is. Junior got to second, and he kept me on my toes. It certainly wasn’t easy all the way until the end. I had to fight for every lap, every corner because he would get a run on me.”

Ricky Rudd finished fourth in a last-lap scramble for position, with Terry Labonte fifth. Sterling Marlin was sixth, with Kurt Busch moving from 22nd starting spot to finish seventh. Mike Wallace was third on the final lap but got shuffled back to eighth, with Ward Burton ninth and Dale Jarrett 10th.

The remaining cars to transfer were Ryan Newman, Joe Nemechek, Brett Bodine and Bill Elliott.

“Bill Elliott pushed up off Turn 2 one time,” Bodine said. “I was able to get underneath him. When I finally got in front of him, we realized we better with him behind me, and off we went. We started chasing them down and picking them off.”

Matt Kenseth was 15th and failed to transfer, along with 16th- place Johnny Benson and 17th-place Kyle Petty. Some others who didn’t automatically transfer and will have to fall back on either qualifying speed or provisionals were Elliott Sadler, Bobby Hamilton, Rick Mast and Mark Martin, who dropped off the track with three laps to go.

Once Gordon got out front, drivers behind him couldn’t make passes.

“I was trying to stack Kenny up behind me,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “When he would get behind me, it would push my car back away from his, and by the time I got to Gordon I was by myself. It wasn’t really working out. Kenny had a run because the 5 car pushed him, and we ended up racing each other.”

“I’m sorry,” Schrader said. “I just thought I’d try to win the race.”

Schrader tried to make a move on the last lap in the outside lane, but he didn’t have any drafting help.

“I got my ass back down side real quick though,” Schrader said. “We got a run on Dale and thought we could maybe make something happen. But everyone’s running their own agenda then, worrying about themselves. When someone hangs themselves, well, hell, it’s better to go after him and gain that position.”

In the end, Gordon had the best position. That brought back the same complaints voiced after the Budweiser Shootout.

“It’s just so hard to pass the leader,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “You need a bunch of people working with you. It’s such a frustration going into those final 10 laps.

“When you’re foot’s on the floor, that’s all it’s gonna do. I was trying some things, but Jeff kinda knew what I was going to try because we were trying the same shit as the Shootout. He had a good idea of what to expect from me. I got almost to him one time.”

Pole starter Jimmie Johnson, who also starts first in Sunday’s Daytona 500, was stuck on the inside lane in the opening laps and dropped outside the Top 5 as teammate and co-car owner Jeff Gordon took the lead.

After 15 laps, five cars broke away from the field, with Gordon leading Dale Earnhardt Jr, Ken Schrader, Terry Labonte and Mike Wallace.

Those five stayed the same until Lap 48, when Schrader tried to get around Earnhardt Jr. With drafting help from Labonte, Schrader slipped inside Earnhardt Jr. but couldn’t make it stick.

Geoffrey Bodine, trying to get underneath Sterling Marlin on Lap 2, was penalized for passing under the yellow out-of-bounds line at the start-finish line. He made a stop-and-go pit stop and dropped way behind the lead draft.

Several laps later, Johnson went below the yellow line and received a similar penalty. This one wasn’t as damaging since Johnson already has a spot locked in for the Daytona 500.

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