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MOTOR RACING

Jeff Gordon serves notice at Daytona

Coming off a winless season, he drives to victory in one of the twin 150 races, with Kyle Busch winning the other.

February 13, 2009|Tania Ganguli

DAYTONA BEACH, FLA. — Can he win again?

Has he lost a step?

Does Jeff Gordon still have the fire and passion he did when he was winning championships?

Yes, no and absolutely.

The three-time Daytona 500 winner broke his winless streak dating to race 31 of 2007 Thursday afternoon with a win in the day's first Gatorade Duel at Daytona. He kissed his daughter in Victory Lane, leaving behind his first winless season since 1993, a season in which many wondered if the birth of his daughter made Gordon lose his desire to race.

It was only a qualifying race and Gordon was already locked in, but the No. 24 team needed this.

"Any win's exciting and meaningful to us right now," Gordon said. "Because of the pressure that we felt from being winless last year, it's important for us to gain some momentum, some confidence."

Gordon will start third in Sunday's Daytona 500 after winning the first of the twin 150-mile races and Kyle Busch, who won the second Duel, will start beside him, fourth.

Scott Riggs, Tony Stewart, Jeremy Mayfield and A.J. Allmendinger made the Daytona 500 by finishing as the top two go-or-go-home drivers in each Duel. That means Bill Elliott, Travis Kvapil and Regan Smith qualify on their times from Sunday and Terry Labonte takes the past champion's provisional.

It means "more than what you could ever imagine," said Mayfield, with Allmendinger sitting next to him.

Both Mayfield and Allmendinger were overcome with emotion upon making the race. Allmendinger had to put on his sunglasses to hide his tears.

Mayfield finished the race ninth for his self-owned team and Allmendinger finished 10th in the No. 44 Richard Petty Motorsports car.

The 44 dropped in and out of the top 35 as teams folded and points were swapped and sold within the garage. Everyone at Richard Petty Motorsports thought the 44 was in the top 35 until the week before Speedweeks began.

The team owners, crew and its driver all entered Thursday nervous about missing the Daytona 500 after selling sponsorship thinking they were locked in.

"When the King puts your hands around your neck and says, 'You've got to go do this,' it kind of puts a little incentive to make this happen," Allmendinger said.

And as Allmendinger and Mayfield fought together to get into the race, Mark Martin, Busch and Brian Vickers battled for the lead. Vickers gave Martin a push as the two charged toward Busch. They rose on the racetrack to try to beat him up top, but Busch was a step ahead.

He blocked and blocked until he crossed the finish line.

"From where we were last season, it felt like it was pretty cool to start off the season this way," Busch said. "We gave one away in the Duel [last year], we gave one away in the 500, so maybe this week we can steal them both back."

Busch ended last season with no wins in the Chase after entering the Chase with eight.

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tganguli@orlandosentinel.com

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