Tue, Feb 22, 2005 - Page 20 News List

Gordon wins a third Daytona 500

AP , DAYTONA BEACH, FLORIDA

NASCAR driver Jason Leffler, right, collides with John Andretti in Turn 4 during the Daytona 500 at the Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Florida on Sunday. Jeff Gordon won the race, becoming the fifth racer to win the event three times.

PHOTO: AP

The last person Jeff Gordon expected to see ahead of him in a furious finish to the Daytona 500 was Dale Earnhardt Jr. When he did, "I thought it was over, done," Gordon said.

As it turned out, Earnhardt found just enough speed to scare Gordon, not to beat him.

Gordon grabbed the lead from Earnhardt three laps from the scheduled end, then held off Kurt Busch and Earnhardt in extra laps Sunday to become only the fifth driver to win three Daytonas.

It was one of the wildest finishes in the 47-year history of NASCAR's biggest race. There were four lead changes in the last nine laps and two crashes involving a total of 17 cars in the last 20 laps.

Earnhardt, the defending champion, came from 30th with less than 160km to go to grab a late lead, only to see Gordon pass him seconds before a caution flag waved on the 198th of the scheduled 200 laps.

The race went three extra laps to finish under a green flag, and Gordon hung on to beat Busch by two car lengths.

"Oh, my goodness, what an amazing day," a jubilant Gordon said. "Three, baby!"

Gordon, a four-time NASCAR champion, joins Richard Petty (7), Cale Yarborough (4) and Bobby Allison and Dale Jarrett (3) with three or more Daytona victories.

Gordon first won it in 1997 and again in 1999.

"This one's sweeter than the other two," he said. "It was an amazing finish."

Tony Stewart dominated the race for a second straight year, leading 107 laps, and was well on the way to his first 500 win before a rash of late caution flags set up the dramatic ending.

Earnhardt, who struggled with handling through most of the race and had not led a lap, suddenly dove to the outside, just in front of Gordon and charged past Stewart to grab the top spot on the 197th lap.

"I was real, real happy," Earnhardt said. "I'm telling you, man, the car was way, way off. It was hard. It was amazing the difference between the car [at the end] and maybe 50 laps before then. I mean, it was really fast."

When Earnhardt charged to the lead, Gordon thought the race was over.

"I thought maybe Junior was having engine or maybe handling problems," Gordon said. "Then he just flipped a switch or something and there he was.

"I didn't even think we could get up beside him, let alone pass him."

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