Archive for Thursday, July 8, 2004

Teamwork pays off for Gordon, Johnson at Daytona

July 8, 2004


A pair of Chevrolets at the front of the field, fending off all adversaries to extend their team's streak of success in a NASCAR Nextel Cup restrictor-plate race.

The plot was familiar in Saturday night's Pepsi 400 at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway, but the lead roles were cast differently.

Instead of Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Michael Waltrip answering questions about "team orders" after another Dale Earnhardt Inc. plate win, this time around it was Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson.

The Hendrick Motorsports teammates successfully worked together in the rain-delayed race, with Johnson giving Gordon the drafting push he needed to take the lead from Tony Stewart on Lap 154.

Johnson's car was pulled along into second in that move, and that's where Johnson remained over the final seven laps as Gordon scored a second straight victory and his fourth win of the season.

This one adroitly mimicked a pattern the Earnhardt Jr.-Waltrip tandem had honed to perfection in winning 10 of 13 races at Daytona and Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway.

Since 2000, no team other than DEI had won more than one plate race in a season. Now, Gordon has stacked up two straight for Hendrick Motorsports after adding this victory to one at Talladega in April.

You could see this story line emerging from the time the field finally came up to full speed on Lap 10 after running the first nine circuits under the yellow to finish drying the track after sitting through a two-hour delay in the start of the season's 17th race.

The four Chevrolets owned by Rick Hendrick never strayed too far away from one another.

They pitted together under green, almost as though they were in formation, on Lap 108, then came back in together on Lap 138 for their final stops.

Johnson swore he wasn't merely being a loyal wingman.

"It's funny," he said. "If it would have been any other car it would have been, 'Man, you drove your butt off,' or 'Great second-place finish.' But as soon as it is a teammate in front of you, everybody wonders if you're blocking or content in second.

"There's no way in the world I wanted to finish second. But you do race smarter when you are around your teammates. You help them because you can count on them helping you back."

Terry Labonte finished eighth, and Brian Vickers was ninth, meaning all four Hendrick cars were in the final top 10.

When Gordon won at Talladega, he was running virtually side by side with Earnhardt Jr. on Lap 184 when a caution came out and effectively ended the 188-lap race.

Fans peppered the track with debris that day because they not only had been denied a green-flag finish but a race to the checkered flag between Gordon and Earnhardt Jr., the sport's two biggest love-'em-or-hate-'em stars.

"There weren't nearly as many things thrown at me after this one," Gordon said when asked to compare his two plate-race wins this year. "There was a lot of controversy with that one, a lot of debate. Tonight I don't think there was any debate.

"I don't think anybody had much doubt about which team performed the best here all weekend."

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