DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - Jeff Gordon and Kyle Busch won qualifying races yesterday for Sunday's Daytona 500.
Gordon, a four-time Cup champion coming off his first winless season since his 1993 rookie year, climbed from his car in Victory Lane and immediately reached for his young daughter. Ella was just an infant during his previous victory celebration, in October 2007.
"I've been fortunate enough to visit Victory Lane quite a few times, but not many times as a father," Gordon said. "There's nothing more special than that."
The non-points Gatorade Duel doesn't officially count for anything in Gordon's victory total, but gave him a second-row starting spot. It also gave him much-needed momentum after his disappointing 2008 season.
"Who says we can't win?" Gordon said. "This team has been unbelievable. We all know what we went through last year by not winning. There's a lot of expectations on this team, but they never wavered. The guys just kept working hard, building great race cars.
"I'm really excited about the Daytona 500 after that race. It's been a while since I've been to Victory Lane. I've got to take advantage of this."
Busch also made an overdue return to Victory Lane, where he was a frequent visitor last season before tailing off when the championship was on the line. Busch won eight races last year and led the Cup standings most of the season, but started to falter in August and fell apart when the Chase for the championship began.
A victory in the duel - he held off a late charge from sentimental favorite Mark Martin and used help from teammate Denny Hamlin - has helped him regain momentum.
"It was a disappointing season toward the end," Busch said, "so that was a great way to start it off."
Four spots were up for grabs to cars not otherwise qualified for NASCAR's biggest event of the year. Those went to Jeremy Mayfield and AJ Allmendinger, who raced their way in during the second event, and Scott Riggs and Regan Smith, who earned the two spots from the first race.
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