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Gordon has the edge

The ghosts of past blunders no longer haunt Jeff Gordon and his Hendrick Motorsports crew.

Today, Gordon can bring up Pocono and his crew can talk about Daytona and not feel like boneheads anymore.

Beating a two-time Daytona 500 winner in the pits at Daytona International Speedway and a NASCAR legend in a one-lap streak to the Pepsi 400 checkered flag Saturday did all of that. That and make the 23-year-old Gordon $96,580 richer and define him as the youngest Pepsi 400 victor.

It was another stellar achievement in the Indiana driver's dizzying Winston Cup career, one that already includes victories at racing venues such as Indianapolis, Charlotte and now Daytona.

Perched high above the emptied 2.5-mile superspeedway an hour or so after the race, even Gordon had trouble putting it all into perspective.

"How can you answer that?" he said when asked if this victory, by a scant .21 seconds over Sterling Marlin and Dale Earnhardt, was the greatest of his career.

It was about the only thing Gordon didn't have an answer for on race day, when his crew performed with virtually flawless precision and he drove with equal competence _ the antithesis of their work at Pocono three weeks ago and at the Daytona 500 in February.

At Pocono, Gordon was leading when he missed a gear shift on a restart in the final seven laps; he finished 16th. "I could do it a hundred times, a thousand times and not have that happen again," he said.

At Daytona, Gordon was in contention when his jackman dropped the jack too early during a pit stop, costing him valuable track position and noticeably damaging the car _ two handicaps he was unable to overcome, finishing 22nd.

"I think that actually helped our team because it pulled everybody together," said Gordon's crew chief, Ray Evernham. "Jeff didn't yell and scream and say, "You guys cost me my biggest race.'

"

It must have done something, because thrust into similar situations Saturday, everyone kept their cool.

The Hendrick crew nursed and massaged Gordon's fickle No.

24 Chevy Monte Carlo, repeatedly getting him in and out of the pits quicker than Marlin, who swapped the lead with him for most of their 2-hour, 23-minute workday.

The crew's swift and efficient work was never more critical than on the final round of pit stops with about 31 laps to go, an opportunity created by Jeff Purvis' single-car crash coming out of Turn 4. The Hendrick crew identified and madethe necessary adjustments and got Gordon out ahead of Marlin, who held a slight lead over Gordon coming into the pits.

In Gordon's mind, his crew effectively gave him the win.

"We beat them out of the pits, and that's what we needed to win this race _ to be out front because it is so hard to pass on the racetrack," he said. "I think the guys were making up for here in February."

Gordon then got his chance for redemption for Pocono. With four laps to go, a spin by Mike Wallace brought out only the third caution period of the day and threatened to end the race under the yellow flag.

But NASCAR restarted the race with one lap left and a gang of drivers _ namely Marlin, Earnhardt and Mark Martin _ chomping at Gordon's rear bumper. This time, he clicked up through second, third and fourth gears without the slightest hesitation.

In fact, he took his time, not wanting to get too far out in front at the green flag for fear that his pursuers would hook up and go plowing past him _ a clever calculation for a third-year driver who admittedly was ruffled by the weighty circumstances.

"I don't know if intimidated is the right word. Earnhardt is the last person you want to see in your (rearview) mirror with one lap to go," he said later. "I would say I was concerned."

As it turned out, he had them all covered. Marlin had to slow in turns 1 and 2 as he pushed Earnhardt for second place, then wasted too much time running side-by-side with him through turns 3 and 4 to have any shot at running down Gordon in what was the second-fastest Pepsi 400 (the average speed was 166.976 mph) in a decade.

"(Earnhardt and I) got together there in (turns 1 and 2) and it kind of slowed us both up," Marlin said.

Added Earnhardt: "There wasn't anything we could do there at the end but race 'em. I couldn't have caught Gordon."

Now, neither can those ghosts.

Gordon rules

Jeff Gordon's victories in 1995:

2-26 Goodwrench 500 Rockingham, N.C.

3-12 Purolator 500 Hampton, Ga.

4-2 Food City 500 Bristol, Tenn.

7-1 Pepsi 400 Daytona Beach

KEY TO THE RACE.

Pit stops. Jeff Gordon repeatedly beat second-place Sterling Marlin out of the pits.

The most crucial time came on the final round of pit stops, when 31 laps remained. Gordon's crew outhustled Marlin's again, putting Gordon, who was second, ahead of Marlin.

Gordon never relinquished the lead.

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