DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - Jeff Gordon came to Daytona with a solid shot at tying Dale Earnhardt's mark of 76 career victories.
Then his car failed inspection. To tie the mark, Gordon must do what no driver has done before: win the Daytona 500 from the 42nd starting position. Bobby Allison holds the record, coming back from 33rd to win in 1978.
Gordon knows it won't be easy. "You've got to avoid the obstacles that lie in the way. You've got to make sure you don't create a wreck. You've got to make sure you don't get caught up in one," he said Friday. "Trust me, there's a reason why nobody has ever won this race from that far back.
"We want to be the first one to do it, and I think we're capable of it."
It certainly looked that way Thursday after Gordon won a qualifying race in dramatic fashion, going from fourth to first on the final lap and taking the lead with an impressive weave through traffic. The finish earned him the fourth-place starting spot for Sunday's season-opening race.
But as he sat on the podium during his winner's news conference, Gordon was told his car was too low in postrace inspection.
In a week filled with cheating scandals, Gordon quickly was linked with the offenders. Unlike the other five drivers who were heavily penalized, Gordon received the equivalent of a slap on the wrist. Series officials ruled his infraction was an inadvertent part failure and did not give him a competitive advantage.
Instead of a stiff penalty, Gordon was stripped of his starting spot and sent to the back of the field, something he knew would lead to calls of favoritism.
"Jeff Gordon's deal? I don't know. It seems like a pretty big deal to me, but that's the way it goes," said Kasey Kahne, who lost his crew chief for four races and was docked 50 points this week.
Elliott Sadler, who had his crew chief suspended two weeks and was docked 25 points, also was puzzled by NASCAR's reaction. "I was kind of surprised they let him keep the win," he said. "If you don't pass postrace inspection, you don't get whatever position you finished in. I think that's why you have postrace inspection."
But as skeptical drivers took time to examine the part and discuss the situation with series officials, that stance began to soften. "It was seen by me as an honest mistake," Jeff Burton said. "For me, I think the penalty fit the crime."
DAYTONA 500 LINEUP
At Daytona International Speedway
Daytona Beach, Fla.
Lap length: 2.5 miles
(Car number in parentheses)
1. (38) David Gilliland, Ford
2. (88) Ricky Rudd, Ford
3. (20) Tony Stewart, Chevrolet
4. (2) Kurt Busch, Dodge
5. (8) Dale Earnhardt Jr., Chevrolet
6. (40) David Stremme, Dodge
7. (31) Jeff Burton, Chevrolet
8. (5) Kyle Busch, Chevrolet
9. (11) Denny Hamlin, Chevrolet
10. (17) Matt Kenseth, Ford
11. (07) Clint Bowyer, Chevrolet
12. (18) J.J. Yeley, Chevrolet
13. (1) Martin Truex Jr., Chevrolet
14. (99) Carl Edwards, Ford
15. (55) Michael Waltrip, Toyota
16. (12) Ryan Newman, Dodge
17. (25) Casey Mears, Chevrolet
18. (13) Joe Nemechek, Chevrolet
19. (21) Kenny Schrader, Ford
20. (96) Tony Raines, Chevrolet
21. (48) Jimmie Johnson, Chevrolet
22. (109) Mike Wallace, Chevrolet
23. (160) Boris Said, Ford
24. (26) Jamie McMurray, Ford
25. (16) Greg Biffle, Ford
26. (01) Mark Martin, Chevrolet
27. (43) Bobby Labonte, Dodge
28. (9) Kasey Kahne, Dodge
29. (45) Kyle Petty, Dodge
30. (19) Elliott Sadler, Dodge
31. (66) Jeff Green, Chevrolet
32. (10) Scott Riggs, Dodge
33. (41) Reed Sorenson, Dodge
34. (29) Kevin Harvick, Chevrolet
35. (6) David Ragan, Ford
36. (42) Juan Pablo Montoya, Dodge
37. (22) Dave Blaney, Toyota
38. (14) Sterling Marlin, Chevrolet
39. (7) Robby Gordon, Ford
40. (00) David Reutimann, Toyota
41. (70) Johnny Sauter, Chevrolet
42. (24) Jeff Gordon, Chevrolet
43. (44) Dale Jarrett, Toyota
FAILED TO QUALIFY
44. (49) Mike Bliss, Dodge
45. (36) Jeremy Mayfield, Toyota
46. (15) Paul Menard, Chevrolet
47. (78) Kenny Wallace, Chevrolet
48. (34) Kevin Lepage, Dodge
49. (74) Derrike Cope, Dodge
50. (130) Stanton Barrett, Chevrolet
51. (139) Regan Smith, Chevrolet
52. (37) Bill Elliott, Dodge
53. (171) Frank Kimmel, Ford
54. (172) Brandon Whitt, Chevrolet
55. (58) James Hylton, Chevrolet
56. (104) Eric McClure, Chevrolet
57. (27) Kirk Shelmerdine, Chevrolet
58. (4) Ward Burton, Chevrolet
59. (83) Brian Vickers, Toyota
60. (23) Mike Skinner, Toyota
61. (84) A.J. Allmendinger, Toyota