Gordon Waltrip Twin Winners

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Jeff Gordon and Michael Waltrip both celebrated victories in the Gatorade Twin 125-mile qualifying races Thursday at Daytona International Speedway. But the races looked nothing like each other.

Gordon got the lead on the first lap from pole winner Jimmie Johnson in the first race and led a five-car single-file pack to the checkered flag. Sure, there was some jockeying on the last lap, but the leaderboard stayed pretty much the same.

The second race had plenty of movement, as Waltrip battled Tony Stewart side-by-side for several laps, with draft lines forming behind each. In the end, Stewart couldn’t make a move on Waltrip despite a spirited effort to move through the field.

Jimmy Spencer was the biggest name to miss the field for Sunday’s Daytona 500, crashing out of the second race and not having a fast enough speed to make the race. Others who head home early are Hut Stricklin, Rick Mast, Buckshot Jones, Carl Long, Hermie Sadler, Norm Benning, Greg Biffle, Bobby Gerhart and Kirk Shelmerdine.

The six drivers who made it on speed were: Robert Pressley, Bobby Hamilton, Jeff Burton, Kyle Petty, Geoffrey Bodine and Shawna Robinson. The seven who used provisionals were: Rusty Wallace, Johnny Benson, Mark Martin, Matt Kenseth, Elliott Sadler, Dave Blaney and Ricky Craven.

The two 125-mile qualifying races were certainly no mirror image of each other.

“Our race was pretty conservative,” Gordon said. “Guys were just playing it smart, knowing this was just a qualifying race for the 500. In the second race, with the caution coming out, it allowed more guys to take chances and make some moves.

“I also think because we got in single-file right away, it allowed us to break away, and it forced the other guys to get in line if they were going to catch us.

“You’re going to see a race more like the second race for the 500. You’ll see a good, exciting race, but with the way the rules are, you can break away a little bit. In a 500-mile race, you want to break away if you can.”

Gordon will start third in Sunday’s Daytona 500, with Waltrip fourth, Dale Earnhardt Jr. fifth, Stewart sixth, Ken Schrader seventh, Jerry Nadeau eighth, Ricky Rudd ninth and Bobby Labonte 10th.

The first qualifying race determines odd-numbered positions from third to 29th, while the second determines even-number spots from fourth to 30th.

Gordon beat Earnhardt Jr. and Schrader to the checkered flag to claim the third starting spot in Sunday’s race. And Gordon had advice for anyone chasing the leader in the closing laps.

“You better not wait until the last lap,” Gordon said. “Junior started working on me with about nine or 10 to go. That’s a smart way to do it. It might take you nine or 10 laps to make it happen. If you get an opportunity to get in the lead, boy, you better take it.”

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.

Up front, Gordon’s car looked like a monster, and most of the other drivers didn’t want to take a chance in stirring the monster. But Earnhardt Jr. and Schrader tried.

“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 (Terry Labonte) 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.”

Everyone went after Waltrip in the second race. Waltrip led the final 44 laps but had to do everything in his power to keep Stewart, who won last Sunday’s Budweiser Shootout, at bay.

“I was worried those last couple of laps because Tony was coming,” Waltrip said. “I did everything I could to block him and keep him behind me. Man, I was a busy man. When I came off Turn 4, I just tried to block Tony as best I could.

“Tony’s car is fast and my car is fast. I proved that from the start by jumping to the front. That was the key factor. It just turned into a heckuva race at the end.”

Jerry Nadeau finished third in the second 125-mile qualifier, followed by Kevin Harvick, Bobby Labonte, Robby Gordon, Dave Marcis, John Andretti, Kenny Wallace, Mike Skinner, Todd Bodine, Stacy Compton and Casey Atwood, Jeremy Mayfield and Jeff Green – the final driver to transfer via the qualifying race.

On a restart on Lap 32, Stewart briefly took the lead from Waltrip, but the two battled side-by-side for the next several laps. Waltrip had drafting help from, of all people, Stewart’s teammate, Bobby Labonte; while Stewart was being tailed by Harvick.

Stewart then fell of the pace a bit, allowing Waltrip to maintain the lead with Labonte behind him. Stewart got shuffled back in the pack within the next few laps, but made his way back through the pack and was on Waltrip’s bumper in the final two laps.

Waltrip, however, would not let Stewart get by, and Stewart had to settle for the runner-up slot.

“Waltrip, he did a great job today, man,” Stewart said. “That car got real wide, but he did a great job all day.

“You’ve just got to try to get a big run on a guy. There are going to be a lot of good cars Sunday. Everybody is going to blow out of proportion the first race vs. the second race, but you’ve got to keep in mind that you’ve got half the field and half the field. Now, you get twice as many good cars up front. ... Having more good cars means there are going to be more opportunities to pass, so that is going to be the key to getting by: having more good cars up front there to help.”

Waltrip said he’s ready to defend his Daytona 500 title and is not ready to give it up.

“I came down here planning to win the Daytona 500,” Waltrip said. “Right now, I’m right where I need to be as a driver. I’ve got a team that believes in me, and we’ve got great cars. We came into last year Daytona with the same confidence. We’ve been building this team together, and with (crew chief) Slugger (Labbe) coming on for last three or four months, it’s been that much better. We’re very confident about this race team and what’s going to happen this year.”

An eight-car accident – triggered by Skinner having to switch ignition boxes – on Lap 9 brought out a caution flag and ruined the hopes of many drivers trying to make the 500. Jones was one who had to head to the garage, and he missed the Daytona 500 field.

Spencer was involved, but he made his way back into the Top 15 before flattening a tire and hitting the wall in Turn 2, effectively ending his chances to make the field for Sunday’s race.

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