The Kid won anyway.
Everybody else had allies. He had nothing but enemies. Throughout the Daytona 500, Jeff Gordon might as well have had a bull's eye drawn on the back of his race car.
"I couldn't even get to his bumper," Dale Earnhardt said. "If I could have, maybe I could have done something with him. But he was strong."
"Gordon just got me on the apron down there," Rusty Wallace said. "I couldn't block him off enough."
These are the things rivals are supposed to say whenever somebody else walks off with one of their sport's crown jewels. But when Gordon is involved, you just know, somehow, that those regrets run deeper, that the envy simmers closer to the surface and the vows to make sure he doesn't win the next time take on the seriousness of blood oaths.
At the end of Sunday's race, after Gordon had won his second Daytona in three years and was cruising along at a victory-lap pace, Earnhardt pulled his black No. 3 Chevy alongside Gordon's rainbow-hued No. 24 and gave him a little bump.
It was done in good humor, perhaps even in goodwill, a gesture of grudging admiration. But if Earnhardt had had the same opportunity just moments earlier, as the two played cat-and-mouse at 190 mph over the 2«-mile oval, the bite would not have been friendly.
"Trying to keep him behind me," Gordon said, "is one of the hardest things I've ever done at Daytona."
Hear Gordon talk like that, watch the way he behaves after a race, and it's hard to know what he's done to inspire so much dislike. And not just from the guys he's up against week after week, but from the fans of every one of them.
On Sunday, for instance, Gordon went out of his way to credit Earnhardt, not just for showing him the move that put him ahead to stay, but for the actual bump that put him into the lead in the first place.
In the span of a few hair-raising seconds, Gordon took his Chevy down below the yellow line, ducking underneath the leader, Wallace, and squeezing past the slow-moving lapped car of Rick Rudd. Instead of responding to Gordon the way it usually does, with boos, the NASCAR crowd of 185,000 gasped. That became a roar as Gordon drew even with Wallace, and Earnhardt's teammate, Mike Skinner, did the same on the outside.
As they headed into the third turn three-wide, Earnhardt, just behind them, was trying to force his way into the lead. He decided the most direct route was to bump Gordon into the lead, then overtake him at some point during the final 10 laps.
The flaw in that thinking is that Gordon learned how to protect the lead from "The Master" himself, which is what he calls Earnhardt. It didn't matter, finally, whether Earnhardt slid his car high or low on the banked track looking for his opening. Like a student eager to please, Gordon anticipated his every move.
"He's taught me so much out there," Gordon said. "He's probably going to tell you I learned too much from him."
In this case, there is no such thing. Like most of the racers on the circuit, Gordon has teammates; unlike most of the racers, however, that's the only place he's likely to find help in a jam. And help is especially important at Daytona, one of just two races where NASCAR-mandated restrictor plates limits every car's horsepower, a feature that makes for unusually close racing and plenty of drafting.
Earlier in the week, two-time winner Dale Jarrett talked about how, "Everybody is looking to make deals here." What he meant was that a car that slipped out of line looking to gain an edge had better have another car to push or pull him in a drafting arrangement -- or risk losing 15 or 20 positions as the field goes zooming by.
Gordon rarely gets the benefit of such help. It could be because he's young, or because he's an outsider, or simply because since arriving on the circuit in 1993, Gordon has done nothing but win. Either way, few other drivers have offered to help and Gordon has rarely asked.
On Thursday, he was out front for 38 laps during one of the qualifying races only to have Bobby Labonte and Ken Schrader gang up on him and go roaring by. Labonte held on to claim the 50-lap race.
But when the biggest of races was on the line, Gordon knew it was every racer for himself. He got to the front with one brilliant bit of racing and a push from Earnhardt, who used to mockingly refer to Gordon as "Wonder Boy."
Now Earnhardt must be wondering what "Wonder Boy" will do next.
Jim Litke is a sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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