DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - Jeff Gordon has that winning feeling again. A week ago, it was nearly total domination on the road course at Sonoma. Saturday
night, it was a powerful victory in the Pepsi 400 on Daytona International Speedway's big oval, a win that has Gordon thinking about a fifth NASCAR
"Things are feeling pretty darn good right now,"
Gordon said. "What a way to get momentum and be strong week in and week out on totally
different race tracks.
Gordon and Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson finished 1-2, leaving the favored Dale Earnhardt Inc. duo of Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Michael
Waltrip and everyone else behind.
"Wow! Wow! Wow!"
Gordon said. "This is a big one. What an awesome show by Hendrick Motorsports.
It was Gordon's second victory in a row, fourth of the season and 68th of his career. He also became the first driver to win this race from the pole
since Cale Yarborough in 1981. Gordon, who wound up leading a race-high 61 laps, gave series leader Johnson a lot of credit.
"He gave me a push out there that no one else out there would have given me,"
Gordon said. "I owe this win to him and I owe him a push and
the next time I'm going to give him one.
Gordon, already the leader among active Nextel Cup drivers in victories at Daytona and Talladega, the tracks where NASCAR requires horsepower-robbing
carburetor restrictor plates to keep the cars under 200 mph, came up with his eighth plate victory and second in a row. At Talladega in April,
Earnhardt, considered by many the guy to beat at every plate race, was mounting a late challenge to Gordon when a caution flag with three laps
remaining gave Gordon the victory, bringing a wave of beer cans and seat cushions raining down on the track from unhappy Earnhardt fans.
This time, there was little question. Every time he got behind, Gordon was able to work his way back to the lead, while Earnhardt came up short at the
end. With Johnson, whose car Gordon owns, giving him a solid push, Gordon's No. 24 Chevrolet took the lead for the final time on the 154th of 160 laps
on the 2½-mile oval, passing Tony Stewart and pulling away. It finished with Johnson 0.143 seconds about two car-lengths behind, followed by
Earnhardt, Kurt Busch, Stewart, Mark Martin, Bobby Labonte and two more Hendrick drivers, Terry Labonte and rookie Brian Vickers.
Waltrip, who combined with Earnhardt to win five of the previous seven Cup races at Daytona, dominated early, leading five times for 57 laps, but
fought an ill-handling car and wound up 13th. Stewart, who was fined $50,000 earlier in the week for hitting Vickers in a postrace altercation last
Sunday at Sonoma, was nowhere near the lead until late in the race. He took the top spot on the last series of pit stops when his Joe Gibbs Racing
team put on only two tires while the other leaders took four.
Earnhardt, who had a slow stop and had fallen to eighth, got all the way to second on lap 149 before slipping back into the pack again. Meanwhile,
Gordon and Johnson hooked up and went after Stewart, moving past him easily 17 laps from the end. Johnson, with Earnhardt looming in his mirrors,
tried to make a move on Gordon, but couldn't catch him.
"Jeff's on his game and he knows how to do this plate racing,"
said Johnson, who hurt his chances of a victory when he slid through his pit on
his last stop and nearly slid into the pit wall.
"If I hadn't made that mistake, we might have had a win."
Earnhardt, the Daytona 500 winner in February, said it just wasn't his day.
"We just didn't have the car to do it and we had a terrible day in the pits today,"
he said. "To win this race, you've got to be in front. I
thought we knew that. We just didn't have enough help, but I don't know if that would have mattered."
Johnson came out of the race with the same 27-point lead over Earnhardt he had going in. Gordon is third, 232 points back. The race, which began two
hours late because of rain, ran without interruption and finished after midnight.