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Gordon Gets Year Off to Exciting, Successful Start

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DAYTONA BEACH, FLA. (AP) — Jeff Gordon thinks winning a Daytona 500 is almost as satisfying as capturing the Winston Cup title.

Who's to say he won't get both in 1999?

Gordon and his Rainbow Warriors got the year off to a perfect start by outdueling Dale Earnhardt down the stretch to win NASCAR's biggest race Sunday.

A day later, Gordon turned his winning car over to be displayed at an exhibit next door to the track. Then, he started looking forward to the chase for a third-straight Winston Cup series title.

``We not only got the Daytona 500 win, but we got that first win of the season out of the way,'' Gordon said. ``It's so important to get that first win. After last season was over, you go, `Boy, do we have what it takes to get to victory lane again next year? Are we going to be a championship contender?' I'm still not sure about the championship part, but we definitely have one win out of the way.''

And what a victory it was.

A day later, Gordon was still putting the pieces together, trying to explain the thought process he used to muster a late chase through the pack that produced a scintillating final dash to the finish with Earnhardt on his bumper.

``Nothing is planned,'' Gordon said. ``I wish I could plan passes, but you never know when you're going to get a run on a guy.''

Once the passing was over, Gordon had only one, daunting concern.

With Earnhardt bearing down, Gordon held him off with moves he had learned over his decade-plus of racing - some by watching The Intimidator himself - and ruined Earnhardt's hopes for a second-straight Daytona 500 title.

It could go down as the best finish in the 41-year history of the race. Even Gordon said he didn't fully understand the impact it had until well after the race was complete.

``You realize when you pick up the paper the next day how big an event this actually is,'' he said. ``It's not just an auto race, but an event that millions of people watch. To pull off a big win like that is exciting, especially because of the way it came down to Dale Earnhardt and myself.''

Gordon won his third straight race, dating to last year. One event into the season, it seems all the pieces are in place to match last year's 13-victory mark, which tied Richard Petty for the most wins in the modern era.

Gordon also got a big jump on surpassing last year's record $9.3 million in earnings. He took home a $2.1 million paycheck that included a $1 million sponsor bonus.

After he said good-bye to Daytona, he boarded a Lear jet and traveled to New York, where he was scheduled for television appearances with David Letterman and elsewhere.

``I don't think I realized how big an event the Daytona 500 was until I won it the first time in 1997,'' Gordon said. ``You go on a whirlwind tour. You go to New York, you go do the Letterman show and all the media things and they treat you like a king.''

On a magical day in Daytona, it was clear that Gordon had earned the title.

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