Jeff Gordon and Kyle Busch celebrated in Victory Lane, far away from the real winners of Thursday afternoon’s 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 is a threat to win Sunday’s Daytona 500, but at least they’ll be in the show.
Allmendinger, Mayfield, Riggs and Regan Smith earned spots after strong finishes in the Gatorade Duels in Daytona Beach, Fla.
“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.
“Man, 23 days ago we didn’t even have a race team,” Mayfield said after finishing ninth in the second qualifier. “It’s a very unbelievable feeling. To know where we were at then, how much hard work has been done in such a short amount of time is just unbelievable.”
For Gordon, winning the first Duel ended the longest winless drought of his career. The four-time Cup champion is coming off his first winless season since his 1993 rookie year.
The nonpoints Gatorade Duel doesn’t officially count for anything in Gordon’s victory total, but it gave him a second-row starting spot in Sunday’s race.
Busch, who won eight Cup races last season, held off a late charge from Mark Martin and will start fourth.
Martin Truex Jr. will be on the pole with Martin next to him on the front row.
• NASCAR TRUCKS — Reigning Camping World Truck Series champion Johnny Benson will debut with a new team in today’s season opener at Daytona.
Benson decided before the end of last season to leave Bill Davis Racing, uncertain if he wanted to continue in the series. The 45-year-old veteran changed course and signed with Red Horse Racing this year.
Benson qualified 21st Thursday for today’s 5 p.m. 100-lap race. Colin Braun will start on the pole.
• DESERT — The Southern Nevada Off Road Enthusiasts season opens this weekend with the two-day Lone Kid Battle at Primm. Racing begins at 6:35 a.m. Saturday and Sunday behind Buffalo Bill’s. For more information, go to SnoreRacing.net. …
Andy and Scott McMillin combined to win Saturday’s Parker 425 overall title to open the Best in the Desert series in a race shortened by heavy rain.
Contact reporter Jeff Wolf at jwolf@ reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0247.