- The Washington Times - Friday, February 13, 2009

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 had just won NASCAR’s biggest race.

None of them are a threat to win the Daytona 500, but at least they will 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, finally will be able to rest after a stressful buildup to the qualifying races.

“I’ve been so nervous over the last couple days ‘cause 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 has 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 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. To come here and do this, it’s like winning 10 races.”

The 39-year-old journeyman is throwing everything into this effort. After racing just 25 times over the past two years and failing to draw much interest when rides became available, starting his own team became the last option in continuing his career.

“If I ever want to retire as a driver, I want to retire on my own, not be pushed to the wayside,” Mayfield said. “That’s what kept me motivated to do this.”

Riggs could relate after a fruitless offseason job search had him still scouring for work last month.

He was finally swayed by Tommy Baldwin, who was the crew chief and competition director at Bill Davis Racing before the sponsor-strapped team folded in late December. Baldwin was putting together a startup race team and lured Riggs to the driver seat.

“It came down to a point that I had to make a decision - am I going to sit at home and stay on the phone and call people and hope that something opens up to give me an opportunity to get in the car?” Riggs said. “Or am I going to go down to Daytona and start the season off with somebody like Tommy?

“What really made the decision for me was when I talked to Tommy and just heard the passion in his voice. Man, I am just elated.”

So was Gordon, who 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.”

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