DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -≠Jeff Gordon and Kyle Busch both celebrated in Victory Lane, far away from the real winners of the Daytona 500 qualifying races.
Jeremy Mayfield choked back emotion. AJ Allmendinger hid his tears behind sunglasses. Scott Riggs felt as if he’d just won NASCAR’s biggest race.
None of them are a threat to win the Daytona 500, but at least they’ll be in the show.
Allmendinger, Mayfield, Riggs and Regan Smith earned spots in the season-opening race in Thursday’s Gatorade Duels.
“It feels absolutely awesome. It’s like we just won the race,” said Riggs, who finished eighth in the first qualifier.
None of the four drivers had rides a month ago, piecing together any opportunity they could to get them to Daytona International Speedway. Allmendinger was let go from Red Bull Racing late last year, and is clinging to an eight-race deal with Richard Petty Motorsports. Riggs became unemployed when Tony Stewart took control of his race team and revamped the driver lineup.
Smith was a casualty of the merger between Dale Earnhardt Inc. and Chip Ganassi Racing, while Mayfield has been out of full-time work since Ray Evernham fired him midway through the 2006 season.
Allmendinger, who failed to make the 500 in his first two NASCAR seasons with Red Bull, will finally be able to rest after a stressful buildup to the qualifying races.
“I’ve been so nervous over the last couple days because I’ve been in this position the last two years,” Allmendinger said. “But I really felt like this year I deserved to be in the race, that this team deserved to be in the race.”
Mayfield has felt the same way, watching from the sidelines as NASCAR roared on without him.
With no ride lined up, Mayfield at the last minute threw his own team together for one last try. He’s got a mismatched group of volunteers, and after loaned-out jackman Kyle Roland was injured while pitting Kirk Shelmerdine’s car during the first qualifying race, Mayfield borrowed an emergency replacement from Michael Waltrip’s crew.
“Man, 23 days ago we didn’t even have a race team,” Mayfield, 39, said after finishing ninth in the second qualifier. “It’s a very unbelievable feeling.”
Gordon ended the longest winless drought of his career by winning the first duel.
The four-time Cup champion, coming off his first winless season since his 1993 rookie year, climbed from his car in victory lane and immediately reached for his young daughter. Ella was just an infant during his last victory celebration, in October 2007.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to visit victory lane quite a few times, but not many times as a father,” Gordon said. “There’s nothing more special than that.”
The non-points Gatorade Duel doesn’t officially count for anything in Gordon’s victory total, but gave him a second-row starting spot in Sunday’s race.
It also gave him much-needed momentum after his disappointing 2008 season.
“Who says we can’t win?” Gordon asked.
Busch also made an overdue return to victory lane, where he was a frequent visitor last season before tailing off when the championship was on the line. Busch won eight races last year and led the Cup standings most of the season, but started to falter in August and fell apart when the Chase for the championship began.
A victory in the duel – he held off a late charge from sentimental favorite Mark Martin and used help from teammate Denny Hamlin – has helped him regain momentum.
“It was a disappointing season toward the end,” Busch said, “so that was a great way to start it off.”