Jeff Gordon begins 'drive for five' at Daytona

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - Sure, Jeff Gordon wants to win the Daytona 500. But a "strong" performance throughout Speedweeks, not just his finishing position in the '500,' could be the spark that leads to his fifth NASCAR Winston Cup championship. "So...

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - Sure, Jeff Gordon wants to win the Daytona 500. But a "strong" performance throughout Speedweeks, not just his finishing position in the '500,' could be the spark that leads to his fifth NASCAR Winston Cup championship.

"So much emphasis is put on this race because it's our Super Bowl," said Gordon, driver of the No. 24 DuPont 200th Anniversary Chevrolet. "Everybody wants to win this race because of the prestige, but it also provides a jump start to the new season.

"You have to remember this is only one of 36 points races, though. You don't necessarily need a good finish here to win the championship."

This is evidenced by comparing how Gordon fared in the Daytona 500 during his championship years of 1995, 1997, 1998 and 2001 versus years he did not win the championship. In the four Daytona 500's of his championship years, Gordon has led 168 of a possible 800 laps, or 21 percent. Yet he has only one top-15 finish -- a win in 1997.

In five Daytona 500 starts in non-championship years, Gordon has led only 26 of a possible 1,000 laps, or three percent, but has one win and three top-five finishes.

"Our strategy hasn't changed this year," Gordon said. "We want to lead laps, win races, post top-fives and win the championship.

"For Speedweeks, we want to be competitive in each event and it starts with qualifying on Saturday. It's so much easier to get to the front and lead laps when you start near the front.

"Sunday's Bud Shootout will give us our first chance this year to race with the new aerodynamic package. Instead of pulling out to pass like we did last year, I think you're going to have to set up a driver for a few laps before you actually attempt a pass this year.

"The Twin 125-mile qualifying races provide our first chance to race with the same car we'll race in the Daytona 500 the better of the two cars we'll race during Speedweeks. Since your Daytona 500 starting spot depends on your finishing position in the Twin's (except the front row which is set during first round qualifying), we'll race hard but not take too many chances. You don't want to tear up your best car four days before the '500.'

"I compare this type of racing (restrictor plate racing) to the show 'Survivor.' For the first 175 laps of the Daytona 500 you need to stay 'under the radar' and make friends and alliances. But when it gets down to those last few laps and the win is up for grabs, don't trust anyone."

During Speedweeks, the No. 24 car will carry a special paint scheme celebrating DuPont's 200th Anniversary. DuPont's CEO, Chad Holliday, will serve as the Grand Marshal for the Daytona 500.

While Holliday may signal the beginning of the 2002 race season with those four famous words "Gentlemen, start your engines," Gordon hopes his Daytona run catapults him to hear four other words at the end of the season NASCAR Winston Cup champion.

-jg/pprp-

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Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Jeff Gordon