Gordon, E need Daytona spark

Jun 28, 2005 4:08 AM

Under the lights Saturday in Daytona, the NASCAR Nextel Cup series begins its dash to the chase.

Cup drivers have 10 races remaining to make some things happen in order to be eligible for the championship chase — consisting of the top 10 drivers and all others within 400 points. If the chase were to begin this week, several big name drivers would not make it. Dale Earnhardt Jr and Jeff Gordon would be out, as would Matt Kenseth and Kasey Kahne.

Fortunately for both Gordon and Junior, they are going to a track where both have confidence and expect to win. Gordon has won the last two races at Daytona and four of the last five restrictor plate races (including Talladega). In all, Gordon has won the last three plate races in basically stealing the crown that once belonged to teammates Earnhardt Jr and Michael Waltrip of DEI.

Prior to Gordon’s run, it was Junior who was King. Before this season, Junior had a run of five wins and two runnerup finishes in seven races at Talladega. At Daytona, things have been a bit tougher, though he’s had a car capable of winning since 2001. He only has two career wins, but they are somewhat monumental and likely etched in NASCAR folklore for years to come.

Even his close finishes are epic, like this year’s Daytona 500 when he came charging to the front late in the race. Earnhardt’s car wasn’t very good, but he did it with pure talent, willpower, and knowledge of the draft. The fans at the track erupted like those at a college football game when their team scored the winning touchdown, except there are three times more fans in attendance at Daytona. The cameraman couldn’t steady his camera as the steal beams swayed atop the Winston Tower because of the jumping up and down from every fan clad in Red.

For those moments and memories to continue, I sure hope Junior gets his team back on the same page. If they don’t do something special this weekend while attempting to get in the championship chase, the season could likely be over. That situation would possibly lead to other things like Junior leaving DEI altogether. Last week in an interview, he mentioned how much he wants to drive the No. 3 car before he’s finished.

Richard Childress owns the right to that number and Junior simply stated that if he had to drive for Childress, he would. Budweiser and his lifetime sponsorship will follow him wherever he goes. Things have gotten almost that bad in the DEI camp, a place he helped build with his father.

The above scenario could possibly happen next season if Junior’s stepmother releases him from his contract that binds him through 2007. Something tells me the Earnhardt Nation of fans want to see Junior drive that car and really wouldn’t care if he left DEI, especially if it made him better or at least competitive.

While Gordon (6-1), Junior (7-1), and Waltrip (10-1) have dominated the plate races the last few years, we still shouldn’t give up yet on a few other drivers to win particularly Gordon’s teammate Jimmie Johnson (7-1).

Johnson is not in first place as of the last race at Sonoma. Greg Biffle (18-1) is your new points leader, who not coincidentally leads in season wins. Johnson finished fifth in the Daytona 500 this season after winning the Budweiser Shootout a week earlier. In his last five Daytona starts, he has finished second, third and fifth (twice). With the big money on the line, Johnson has always stepped aside and let Gordon win.

It’s not as obvious as a Formula One race, but it is apparent that Johnson does look to help his teammate and car owner more than he looks to win himself in these type of races. The one race where Gordon became the good teammate looking to help Johnson was the non-points Bud Shootout.

With all the problems Gordon has had the last six weeks, there is an established trend going on where Murphy’s Law is settling in. Even with the great trend Gordon has going in plate races, it’s hard to deny his struggles are compounded with pressures of the chase and performing well in races he’s supposed to win.

Here are some drivers to watch this week.

Tony Stewart (11-1): Could have easily won the Daytona 500 the last two seasons. Lap leader in the past two Daytona 500’s. Gained his first win of the season last week.

Kurt Busch (12-1): May have the best plate package of all the Ford’s. In his last two Daytona starts, he was fourth and second. At Talladega, placed fifth and seventh. One of the best plate race drivers.

Biffle, Kurt’s teammate, won this race two years in somewhat of a fluke due to pit sequences. Biffle’s car wasn’t close to being the best that day and his driving skills in the draft isn’t exactly the talk in the garages. Since that 2003 win, Biffle (18-1) has been mediocre in all plate races to the depths even Kyle Petty (150-1) hasn’t sunk.

Also: The Hendrick powered engine driven by Scott Riggs (35-1) and the Childress team led by Kevin Harvick (12-1). Chevy again is tough to beat and will be a -240 favorite to win.