Gordon takes Daytona 500

Jeff Gordon secured his third Daytona 500 victory by holding off reigning champion Kurt Busch and last year's winner Dale Earnhardt Jr in a frantic two-lap shoot-out at the end of the NASCAR season-opener. Tony Stewart dominated much of the race but was left a disappointed seventh at the flag

Gordon takes Daytona 500

After 160 laps of relative serenity, the final stages of the race were fairly chaotic - with four caution periods in close succession leading to a green-white-chequered flag finish. At that stage Gordon had Earnhardt Jr, who had come on very strong in the closing stages, right on his rail with Busch, Jimmie Johnson and Stewart also in contention, but when the green flag flew for the final two lap dash to the finish Gordon proved unstoppable.

"I thought Tony Stewart was going to be the guy, he held us off for so long," said Gordon. "He drove a great race and it was fun racing him. Dale Jr came right out of nowhere, he'd just been hanging back all day until it really counted. He pushed me a couple of times and I thought 'there's no way I'm going to be able to keep him behind me.'

"Once he got the lead I thought it was all over, but I got to thank Jimmie Johnson - he gave me a couple of great pushes. When I got some momentum and got in front of him (Earnhardt) I couldn't believe it."

Gordon was always in contention for victory in a race that saw 23 changes of lead and the top 17 cars blanketed by under 2s at the chequered flag. Polesitter Dale Jarrett lost the lead to front row partner Johnson before the first lap was complete, and then slumped all the way back to 41st after a brush with Earnhardt Jr put Jarrett momentarily outside the draft. He was never in contention for victory again and ultimately finished 15th.

Johnson was then passed by Stewart on the third lap, before good pit work put two-time Daytona 500 winner Michael Waltrip ahead as the whole field pitted under the first full course yellow (caused by Bobby Labonte's early engine failure) on lap 14. It soon became clear that Waltrip, Gordon and Stewart would be the men to beat today, with Gordon taking the lead on the third round of pit stops and then Stewart hitting the front just before half-distance. The 2002 champion proved hard to shift in the penultimate quarter of the race, only losing first place during the pit sequences.

Throughout this period Gordon and Waltrip remained right on Stewart's tail, while behind there was frenetic place-swapping and side-by-side racing throughout the field. Then the first of the main contenders fell by the wayside on lap 160, as Waltrip bounced off the wall after suffering an apparent engine failure in his Dale Earnhardt Inc. Chevrolet.

"I don't know what happened, it just broke something pretty big," said Waltrip, Daytona 500 winner in 2001 and 2003. "Fortunately we were able to get out of the way without a wreck. But man, I just wanted to run these last 20-something laps because we had a very fast car and I knew what I had to do to win the race."

A series of multi-car accidents then followed. First John Andretti tangled with Jason Leffler, before the biggest shunt of the race occurred on lap 181 - as Scott Wimmer was tagged into a spin and then a multiple roll, collecting several cars along the way. He was unhurt.

"I've rolled a couple of cars back home in Wisconsin but I haven't done anything that wild before," said Wimmer, who had been running competitively in the top ten. "What scared me the most was that it knocked the wind out of me and I couldn't talk to my guys. But I'm fine, we'll go back and build a new racecar and get ready for the rest of the season."

The subsequent restart then had to be abandoned as Travis Kvapil slammed into the back of Mike Skinner as they approached the green flag, resulting in more multi-car carnage. When racing finally resumed, Earnhardt was the driver to watch. For most of the race he had languished in the midfield, apparently off the pace and with at the 150 lap mark he was running only 23rd. Yet soon afterwards he became more comfortable in his DEI Chevrolet and began tearing through the field, reaching third by the penultimate caution and then immediately sweeping past Gordon and Stewart to take the lead on the lap 194 restart.

"We just got the car handling good at the end when it counted," said Earnhardt. "There was one part of the race when I would've bet a million dollars that the front end wasn't even on it... It wouldn't turn, wouldn't make the corner. Finally we got it turning real good and we had exactly what I needed right at the end."

Lap 197 proved crucial: Stewart's final bid for the lead was rebuffed and he lost momentum and dropped out of the top three, just as Johnson helped his Hendrick Motorsport team-mate Gordon to get around Earnhardt and into the lead. At that moment the final yellow came out as Kasey Kahne brushed the wall, and Gordon didn't give his rivals any chance to respond in the final dash to the flag.

Busch had been nestling amongst the frontrunners all day and leapt into contention in the final shoot-out, snatching second from Earnhardt and then having a brief but fruitless look at the leader.

"It's been an entire team effort to work on this car and get it capable of finishing in the top five," said Busch. "I wanted to take Gordon on the outside going into turn three, but nobody went with me and we didn't have the momentum to carry it through so I had to follow him in and there wasn't much I could do. Congratulations to Jeff Gordon, and second is a great way for us to start off defending our title."

Behind Busch and Earnhardt, Scott Riggs took fourth ahead of Johnson after running with the leaders all day. Mark Martin was a strong sixth in his final Daytona 500, ahead of the frustrated Stewart, who banged panels with Johnson after the chequered flag but was diplomatic and restrained when interviewed.

"We've just got to work on the restarts I guess," said Stewart, who led 106 of the 203 laps. "We had an awesome car today, I was really, really happy with the way it ran. I think we ran the best race we possibly could today, there was just not much I could do at the end."

Sterling Marlin was the best Dodge runner in eighth, with Kevin Lepage (who survived a number of scrapes) and Rusty Wallace completing the top ten.

The victorious Gordon paid tribute to the members of the Hendrick team who lost their lives in last October's tragic plane crash.

"This one is dedicated to those families who were part of that tragic loss last year," he said. "It's something that we're never going to forget but days like today just allow us to honour them that much more.

"We're thankful to be here in Victory Lane and to be able to talk about them and thank them for all that they've done, and to thank all these hard-working people at Hendrick Motorsports who have pulled through and taken us back to victory."

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