Best Daytona 500 Debut No. 1: Jeff Gordon Hit The High Banks Running (Note: This is the final installment in a five-part series on some of the best Daytona 500 debuts by either rookie of the year candidates or drivers making what amounted to an...
Best Daytona 500 Debut No. 1: Jeff Gordon Hit The High Banks Running
(Note: This is the final installment in a five-part series on some of the best Daytona 500 debuts by either rookie of the year candidates or drivers making what amounted to an initial "NASCAR cameo" appearance in the event. Today, we take a look at the countdown finale -- Jeff Gordon's fifth-place finish in 1993.)
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (Feb. 11, 2009) -- Jeff Gordon's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series debut had been nondescript, but he had little control over that. His first series start came in the 1992 season finale at Atlanta Motor Speedway, which also happened to be Richard Petty's last start. There also was the little matter of a championship being decided, with Alan Kulwicki emerging from a pack of five contenders who were still in the running starting the event; Kulwicki ended up edging Bill Elliott for the title by merely 10 points.
Gordon? He started 21st and finished 31st and immediately turned his attention to 1993 and his run at the Rookie of the Year title.
And so he came to Daytona International Speedway -- and hit the high banks running.
In only his second NASCAR Sprint Cup event and his first at Daytona, he won the first of the two 125-mile qualifying races to earn an audacious third-place start for the 500.
He led the first lap of the 500 and went on to finish fifth. And again, he was overshadowed, this time by Dale Jarrett's victory that featured an emotional national TV call by CBS commentator Ned Jarrett -- Dale's dad.
Gordon Was 'Freaked Out' -- And Flying -- At Daytona in 1993
Notable 500 First-Timers in 1993: Jeff Gordon, Bobby Labonte, Kenny Wallace, Al Unser Jr., Jimmy Hensley.
The Intangible: Some people considered Gordon's victory in one of the "Twin 125s" a fluke of sorts. They were overlooking the fact that Gordon, while a NASCAR novice, had more than 15 years of rough-and-tumble, on the-edge open-wheel racing experience. What translated to stock car racing in terms of expertise is debatable. What it meant in terms of building Gordon's nerve is not. And nerve is always essential to success at Daytona International Speedway.
The Recap: The 1993 Daytona 500 was, like so many other recent years, a party-in-waiting for Dale Earnhardt who, despite dominating the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, had somehow failed to win the sport's biggest event. ... Earnhardt again emerged as an overwhelming favorite after winning both the Budweiser Shootout (then known as the Busch Clash) and the second of the "Twin 125s." As further punctuation, he won the NASCAR Nationwide Series season opener for the fourth straight year, the day before the 500. ... Earnhardt led 107 laps, but not the last one as Dale Jarrett, with drafting help from behind from Geoff Bodine, got by Earnhardt. Gordon led the first lap and the 22nd, and brought the No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet home in fifth.
Gordon's Take: "That was my first Daytona 500, and I was freaking out. I didn't know what I was doing and I was along for the ride. I had a fast race car and a great opportunity, but a lack of experience probably hurt my chances of winning. ... The racing was a lot more single file, so you had to work lap after lap after lap to pass a car. Today, with this car at the restrictor-plate tracks, it's a lot different. The second, third or fourth-place car usually has some momentum and can pull out at any time to attempt the pass. If you're in a position to make a move, the question is whether the cars behind you will go with you -- or if they'll leave you high-and-dry without drafting help."
The Follow-Up: Gordon has since won the Daytona 500 three times and the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship four times. He also has won Daytona's annual summer race three times. ... Overall, he has 13 victories at Daytona. ... The 1993 500 got him off and running to the Raybestos Rookie of the Year title.