What A Trifecta

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - Once again, when does that Chevrolet parade start in Daytona?

Oh well, maybe not. Funny what a few bumps and grinds will do to the best-laid plans.

You have to wonder what kind of money you would've made at Sunday's Daytona 500 if you could've walked next door to the dog track and put down $2 on the trifecta of Ward Burton, Elliott Sadler and Geoff Bodine.

It would've been a nice payoff, considering how everybody knew - absolutely KNEW - the 500 would come down to the Chevrolets of Dale Earnhardt Jr., Michael Waltrip and Jeff Gordon, along with the Pontiac of Tony Stewart.

At the end of Sunday's strange affair, however, it was the unassuming Burton, a downhome sort who will spend a few whirlwind days as an unlikely ambassador for his sport - early-morning TV, late-night TV, and a few things in between, no doubt.

"I fit in better in the little hills in Virginia," Burton said after the fourth and biggest win of his Winston Cup career. "We're going to New York. We'll try to fit in there."

New York? That big, bad city will seem like a day at the beach compared to the strangeness that enveloped Daytona International Speedway on Sunday.

Tony Stewart first out - blown motor. Earnhardt Jr. nearly next out - blown tire and mangled fender. Nearly everyone else involved in some sort of cruncher - or escaping by the skin of their teeth.

"There were a lot of close calls throughout the course of the event," said Burton.

It wasn't a close call, but a referee's call, that ultimately led to Burton's victory.

It all began with yet another strange incident: Jeff Gordon making a mistake.

When Gordon cut down to block Sterling Marlin on a Lap 195 restart, few people were even paying attention. Everyone was watching the growing cluster of cars in a slow-speed gang-wreck just beyond the start-finish line.

Up ahead, Gordon had tried to block a low-charging Marlin, but Marlin had already gained enough of the position to guarantee contact with Gordon's left-rear bumper when Gordon came down the track.

As refreshing as some might think it is for Gordon to actually screw up, it was more refreshing to finally hear a racer own up to a mistake.

"Me and Sterling knew how important that last restart was, and he got a jump on me," said Gordon. "I tried to block him and messed up both of our days."

Marlin, in another welcomed change, responded well.

"I got a run on Jeff, and if I had been in his shoes I would've tried to do the same thing," said Marlin.

Marlin's car was still capable of turning a fast lap, however, and he barely outran Burton back to the line in a dash many thought might actually be for the win - given how much cleanup was needed and how few laps remained.

That's when a strange day turned a little stranger - NASCAR unfurled its red flag and stopped all the cars on the backstretch while crews swept the tri-oval area.

And it turned stranger yet.

Sitting behind Marlin on the backstretch, Burton saw Marlin climb from his Dodge and walk around to the front of the passenger side. He didn't notice that Marlin reached down and yanked on the fender, trying to pull it free from a potential rub on the tire.

And Burton didn't know Marlin had just violated a NASCAR rule that says you can't work on your car during a red flag.

And Burton wasn't sure why Marlin was sent to the back of the line.

He was glad he was, however, and if he wasn't sure of why, he was quite certain what it meant. Barring the most bizarre turn yet, this race was Ward Burton's.

"We really didn't have to fight for it the last two laps," said Burton. "It was really easy. I was just in the right place at the right time. We had good momentum. There was really no threat."

Daytona has a history of feel-good winners. This one is no different. While there are other drivers who top the popularity polls and the marketing charts, everyone is a Ward Burton fan.

And few owners are more deserving of a moment in the spotlight than Bill Davis, who once again displayed his soft-spoken honesty about his place in the sport.

"I've struggled a lot with wanting to understand what it took to earn respect in this garage and maybe to be taken seriously," he said.

This win, on the heels of last September's Southern 500 victory, should take care of that. But in the end, it's not what Davis is most proud of.

"We're real proud of what we accomplished," said Davis. "I'm proud of the fact that we're just normal people from Arkansas who had a dream and were willing to risk it and stick it out and not give up when it got hard."

In the end, it wasn't all that hard - just keep it pointed in the right direction and, as crew chief Tommy Baldwin always tells his driver, "drive it like you stole it." But it was sure strange at times. And as the champagne flowed, very rewarding.

"Wow, what a feeling," said Burton.

Photos

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  • Gordon Wins Fifth at Indy
  • Gordon Wins Fifth at Indy
  • Gordon Wins Fifth at Indy
  • Brickyard 400
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  • Brickyard 400
  • Gordon Wins Fifth at Indy
  • Brickyard 400
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  • 1994 Brickyard Winner: Jeff Gordon
  • 1995 Brickyard Winner: Dale Earnhardt
  • 1996 Brickyard Winner: Dale Jarrett
  • 1997 Brickyard Winner: Ricky Rudd
  • 1998 Brickyard Winner: Jeff Gordon
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  • 2000 Brickyard Winner: Bobby Labonte
  • 2001 Brickyard Winner: Jeff Gordon
  • 2002 Brickyard Winner: Bill Elliott
  • 2003 Brickyard Winner: Kevin Harvick
  • 2004 Brickyard Winner: Jeff Gordon
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  • 2010 Brickyard Winner: Jamie McMurray
  • 2011 Brickyard Winner: Paul Menard
  • 2012 Brickyard Winner: Jimmie Johnson
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