Daytona Weekend Preview: Jeff Gordon’s ‘Great American’ Goodbye

(NASCAR Wire Service)

By Reid Spencer ~ NASCAR Wire Service

Jeff Gordon (left) at Daytona International Speedway with crew chief Alan Gustafson (Photo: Robert Laberge/Getty Images for NASCAR)

Jeff Gordon (left) at Daytona International Speedway with crew chief Alan Gustafson (Photo: Robert Laberge/Getty Images for NASCAR)

Jeff Gordon kicked off his final full-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season the best way he possibly could – by winning the Daytona 500 Coors Light Pole.

The 43-year-old will attempt to launch his farewell full-schedule campaign in even grander fashion in Sunday’s 57th running of “The Great American Race” (1 p.m. ET on FOX) by becoming the 10th Daytona 500 winner to visit Victory Lane from the pole.

“I can’t think of anything cooler than to start this season, the Daytona 500, my final Daytona 500, final full season, on the pole,” he said.

Gordon won his second of three Daytona 500s from the pole in 1999. The other drivers to accomplish the feat are NASCAR Hall of Famers: Fireball Roberts (1962), Richard Petty (1966), Cale Yarborough (1968, ‘84), Bill Elliott (1985, ‘87) and Dale Jarrett (2000), as well as 19-time race-winner Buddy Baker (198).

Despite competing for the championship for the final time this season, Gordon claims to have tunnel-vision as he tries to tackle the 2.5-mile behemoth.

“I want to win the championship, I want points, but right now it’s the Daytona 500,” he said. “All I want to focus on is winning the Daytona 500. I’m just enjoying the ride, enjoying the moment.”

Fellow Chevrolet drivers Dale Earnhardt Jr. and 2014 NSCS champion Kevin Harvick are set to spoil Gordon’s Daytona 500 swan song.

Earnhardt, last year’s Daytona 500 victor boasts two wins in “The Great American Race” and will attempt to become just the fourth driver to repeat at the event (Petty, 1973-74; Yarborough, 1983-84; Sterling Martin, 1994-95). A skilled restrictor-plate driver, Earnhardt owns eight career checkered flags at superspeedways.

“If that 500 car is still in one piece when we put that thing on the starting grid, I got a good feeling about it,” Earnhardt said. “We got some qualifying races, got to get through some practices, and if we can knock that car on the grid, I think it’s going to be a fast one. I don’t think anyone here has a car as fast as ours from what I just saw today.”

Harvick, who won the final two races last season to capture his first NSCS crown can join Gordon (1999), Lee Petty (1959), Richard Petty (1973), Yarborough (1977) and Jarrett (2000) as the sixth defending premier series champion to win the Daytona 500.

The pilot of Stewart-Hass Racing’s No. 4 Budweiser Chevrolet is primed to become the 11th driver in NSCS history to secure consecutive titles.

“As you come into this year, knowing we can do the things that we accomplished last year is very rewarding,” Harvick said. “And it is a great confidence builder for our guys and team.

“We know we can thrive in those situations, be successful in those situations and win races if we put all the pieces together correctly.”

Elliott Aiming For Another Title In Sophomore Season

Arguably the surprise of the NASCAR world last season, 19-year-old Chase Elliott seized the points lead after his July 19 win at Chicagoland and never looked back, taming a barrage of unfamiliar tracks to run away with the NASCAR XFINITY Series championship.

Elliott became the youngest title-winner in NASCAR national series history and the first driver to clinch both a Sunoco Rookie of the Year Award and series crown.

Through his efforts, Elliott earned a full-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series spot in Jeff Gordon’s No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet for 2016, but will take one more full-time go-around to compete for a second XFINITY Series championship in his No. 9 NAPA AUTO PARTS Chevrolet .

“2016 is a ways a way and there’s a lot of racing between now and then,” Elliott said. “I’m staying focused on this season and hopefully going and trying to compete for an XFINITY Series championship.”

The first stop in his title defense tour – Saturday’s Alert Today Florida 300 at Daytona International Speedway (3:30 p.m. ET on FOX Sports 1). DIS was one of the only tracks where Elliott “struggled” last season, finishing 15th and 20th in both events last year. He will attempt to conquer the behemoth where his father, Bill Elliott, won four NSCS races.

Trying to pull off Elliott’s rookie of the year/championship combination in 2015 are Daniel Suarez of Joe Gibbs Racing and Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr. of Roush Fenway Racing.

Suarez ran two XFINITY Series events last year while competing full time in the NASCAR Mexico Toyota Series — where logging series bests of five wins, seven top fives and three poles. The 23-year-old added two wins and seven top 10s in 13 NASCAR K&N Pro Series East starts. He will pilot the No. 18 Arris Toyota for JGR.

“The first goal is going to be to learn. I pretty much believe that this is the most important thing,” Suarez said. “After that, I really think we’re going to be competitive. If we’re competitive, and we’re still running in the top 10 and top five, with some luck we’re going to be getting a chance to get a win.”

Wallace joined RFR in December shortly after JGR, where he was a developmental driver, granted him his release. He finished third in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series last season, leading all regulars in wins (4), driver rating (109.5) and laps led (623). In six NXS races for JGR over the past three years, he boasts four top-10 finishes.

“Chase Elliott set the bar high,” Wallace said. “Before coming into a new series (a goal) would be like, ‘finish top five in the points, get a win.’ (Now it’s) a championship. That’s the only thing on the agenda is get a championship. I have full confidence that we can get that done.”

Can Crafton Clinch Truck Series Three-peat?

In 2014, Matt Crafton became the first driver in the 20-year history of the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series to win consecutive championships.

Now, the No. 88 Menards Toyota driver will try to become one of the few “three-peaters” in sports, joining Jimmie Johnson (2006-10), New York Yankees (1998-00), Chicago Bulls (1991-93, 1996-98) and UCLA Bruins Men’s Basketball (1967-73) among others.

“Three, I’m going to go in with the same mindset as two, just go out here and race, and have fun,” Crafton said. “I get paid for doing what I love to do, so not put any pressure on yourself, and just go out there, try to lead laps and win races.”

Crafton will embark on his championship quest in Friday’s NextEra Energy Resources 250 at Daytona International Speedway (7:30 on FOX Sports 1) where he will take a shot at winning the first superspeedway race of his career.

Likely battling Crafton for his series crown are truck veterans Johnny Sauter and Timothy Peters. But he might face his stiffest competition from youngsters Erik Jones, Ben Kennedy and Tyler Reddick.

Jones, 18, entering his first full-time NCWTS season, has won four races in a mere 17 Truck Series starts the last two years. With experience under his belt, a Truck Series championship is his stated goal.

“Matt (Crafton) has won the championship the last two years by being very consistent and we know that if we are going to beat him, we need to make sure on the days where we don’t have a winning truck we don’t try to make something happen and have it bite us,” Jones said.

Kennedy, 23, took home NCWTS Sunoco Rookie of the Year honors after finishing ninth in the final point standings last season. Now driving the No. 11 Toyota Tundra for Red Horse Racing, he hopes to find Victory Lane in 2015.

Reddick joins Jones as another teenage driver with Truck Series title aspirations. The Corning, California resident, racked up two poles, four top-six and one top-10 finish in his final five starts last season and placed runner-up for the Sunoco Rookie of the Year award despite only running 16 races.

“The big goal this year is obviously a championship,” Reddick said. “We’d love to win every race we can, but a championship is what matters most to us.”

Follow RaceDayCT On FacebookFollow RaceDayCT On Twitter

Leave a Reply

Copyright 2018 E-Media Sports

Website Designed by Thirty Marketing