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DAYTONA 500 Gordon celebrating win in style



Published: Tue, February 22, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



The three-time champion hasn't let success change his approach to racing.

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) -- Jeff Gordon celebrated his third Daytona 500 victory aboard his 106-foot yacht, the 24 Karat.

The four-time NASCAR champion is rich beyond imagination, has Hollywood good looks, and is an A-list celebrity who is just as comfortable hosting "Saturday Night Live" or sitting in on "Live with Regis and Kelly" as driving his No. 24 Chevrolet.

In addition to the yacht that was anchored just minutes from Daytona International Speedway last week, Gordon flies around in a private plane and has several homes.

Yet, for all his riches and fame, Gordon is still interested in the basics.

"You know, I learned quite a while ago that it's not racing that I love, it's winning," Gordon said.

And he's done plenty of that.

His victory Sunday, that came in spectacular fashion, not only put him among the Daytona elite -- joining Richard Petty (7), Cale Yarborough (4), Bobby Allison (3) and Dale Jarrett (3) as the only drivers with three or more victories at NASCAR's shrine.

He has 70 career wins and is within six of Dale Earnhardt. Only six drivers in the more than half century of NASCAR racing have won more than Gordon.

"Seventy!" he said, relishing the sound.

"I wanted to get to 70. That seemed like a good number."

One of the toughest

To do it, Gordon had to outrace defending champion Dale Earnhardt Jr., former series champion Tony Stewart, who led a race-high 107 laps, and reigning Nextel Cup champ Kurt Busch.

He also had to survive a final 20 laps that were chaotic. There were two crashes involving 17 cars and a third caution flag for debris that sent the race into a three-lap overtime.

"Those are the moments that you live for, the moments we get paid the big bucks for," Gordon said. "You live to be in that position, to have chaos happening all around you, for your car to lead the pack.

"I enjoy being in that position. Being out front is the only place to be. I wanted that checkered flag really bad. I looked in my mirror and did everything I could."

What he saw in the mirror on the last two laps was Busch trying to close the gap by staying behind Gordon's rear bumper and coming up about two lengths short.

"I saw some video of the finish and saw how much momentum Busch had," Gordon said. "I'm really thankful he didn't try to go to my outside because I think he had the momentum to do it."

Busch doesn't want to think that he blew a chance for his first Daytona win.

"I had that butterfly in the stomach feeling of 'I've got a shot at winning the Daytona 500.' But I wouldn't have cleared him if I would have went to his high side," Busch said. "I know I wouldn't have. I'm going to stick with that in my mind and be happy with that decision. I'm not going to kick myself."

Win bigger than the money

In the end it was Gordon who enjoyed the spoils, including a $1.4 million payday. But it was the 'W' he relished most.

"I would say that we enjoy the victories that we have these days more than ever, partly because we recognize just how special they are and how hard it is to win in Nextel Cup," Gordon said.

Gordon said the big celebration at the track continued Sunday when he was greeted by guests on his yacht and again when crew chief Robbie Loomis and the team arrived.

"Walking onto that boat was similar to being in Victory Lane," he said. "I was screaming, yelling, high-fiving and enjoying the moment as much as I could. When Robbie and the guys got on the boat, it was the same thing all over again, reminiscing and reliving the moment."

The victory in the season opener got Gordon off to a strong start in his chase for a fifth season title. Only seven-time Cup winners Earnhardt, killed in the 2001 Daytona 500, and long-retired Richard Petty have more.

"But I try not to put too much emphasis on it right now because I don't want to focus on that," Gordon said. "I want to focus on wins and this Hendrick Motorsports team. I want to give them my best effort that I can week in and week out and do what we can to win the championship."

And more races.




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