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Victories Come With Assists

Robby Gordon, Earnhardt win Daytona heats as teamwork comes into play.

February 14, 2003|Shav Glick | Times Staff Writer

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla — DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- The case for teammates working together to take over a race got a boost Thursday in each of the Gatorade twin 125 qualifying heats for Sunday's Daytona 500.

Jeff Green, who will start on the pole Sunday, and Robby Gordon, his Chevrolet teammate at Richard Childress Racing, took turns helping one another, first Green leading and Gordon pushing, then Gordon leading and Green pushing him in the first 50-lap race.

It ended with Gordon first and Green second, the rest of the 25 starters strung out behind them.

In the second race, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Michael Waltrip, Chevy teammates with Dale Earnhardt Inc., finished first and second, but they did let Kevin Harvick, the third Childress driver, lead 10 laps before taking charge for the final 18 laps.

If there were pivotal moments in each race, they were during pit stops.

In the first race, Green had led all 31 laps before the leaders pitted. As he was exiting his pit, Ricky Rudd partially blocked his way, and when the two cars bumped, Gordon took the lead.

"I think in both races it was pretty obvious that the first car out of the pits was going to win the race," said Gordon, the former off-road champion from Orange.

"We decided we were going to work together from the beginning. Obviously, he was going to get the jump at the start, so I jumped in behind him and then it was pretty much who was going to get out of the pits first."

Rudd, who has been in 25 Daytona 500s without a win, said he didn't think the contact had any effect on his car. He finished a strong third in his Wood Brothers Ford.

The second-race pit stops were more spectacular. Kurt Busch came in too fast, locked up his Ford's brakes and began to veer to the left. Harvick, unable to avoid contact, hit and spun Busch's car completely around.

Busch's sliding car slammed into his crew's jack man, Todd Bradel, who was knocked down but held onto the jack. He jumped up and continued with his duties. Busch was penalized 15 seconds and lost a lap, finishing 24th out of 25 starters. He will get into the 500 with a provisional starting berth.

"I think Busch came in at about 500 mph and couldn't stop himself," said Harvick, who later dropped out of his heat. "I didn't even see him come across me until it was too late. It pushed our right front fender in and our day was over. He was driving way over his head and it ended up costing us big."

Harvick's qualifying speed was faster than any other nonqualifier from the 125s, so he will start 31st.

Meanwhile, Earnhardt and Waltrip sped away to the front and cruised to the finish. It was Little E's second win at Speed Weeks this year. He also dominated the 70-lap Budweiser Shootout on Saturday night. He will also start in the front row, alongside pole-sitter Joe Nemechek, in Saturday's Busch Grand National race.

"I would like to sweep the deal by winning the Busch and the 500," said Earnhardt, whose late father won 26 races in his Speed Weeks career at Daytona.

Sunday, the two front rows for the 500 will look exactly as they did after qualifying, Green of RCR and Earnhardt of DEI in the front row, with Gordon of RCR and Waltrip of DEI right behind them.

Each heat winner collected $53,720, which is more than Bobby Allison got when he won the 1978 Daytona 500.

It was Gordon's fifth win at Daytona, but the first four were on the Rolex 24 road course.

"I heard Junior say that he hopes he can sweep this deal," Gordon said. "My goal is that he doesn't sweep the deal. He and Michael have been real strong in restrictor-plate races. RCR has a great history at restrictor-plate races, as well, and I'm going to do everything I can to give Richard [Childress] his second Daytona 500 victory."

Childress' only win was with Dale Earnhardt in 1998.

"I don't know what it really means [to win a 125], other than that we have a fast race car," Gordon continued. "Perception is kind of reality in the garages. If people believe you have a fast race car, I think that is going to help us on Sunday. I think that is something Dale Jr. and Michael have going for them too. Everybody understands these cars are good, so everybody gets in line with them."

In the third row will be two Ford drivers, Rudd and surprising Todd Bodine, who came from 19th to finish third in the second heat. The fourth row will be two old-timers in Dodges, Sterling Marlin and Rusty Wallace.

Bodine's wasn't the only charge through the field in the two races.

Tony Stewart, opening defense of his Winston Cup championship, finished fifth in the second heat after starting last because he had failed to make a qualifying effort Monday.

"That was fun," Stewart said. "That was the way I like it. The cars were sliding all over the place and it was fun. The biggest thing was just make sure we didn't get ourselves in trouble. I got in the middle once to see what I had there, then ran on the top for a while and then the bottom."

Jeff Burton, who had to start last with a backup car in the first heat after damaging his qualified Ford in an accident during practice Tuesday, battled his way to fifth and will start alongside Stewart in the fifth row. Ward Burton, Jeff's older brother and the defending 500 champion, finished ninth in a Dodge in the first heat and will start 17th Sunday.

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