DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- The rookie is a babe, 21 years old, driving in his first Winston Cup event at Daytona International Speedway. His victory yesterday in the first of two Gatorade Twin 125 qualifiers for Sunday's Daytona 500 made him the youngest Winston Cup driver to win the event.
When Jeff Gordon crossed the finish line, he literally bounced up and down in his seat "as much as I could in those seat belts" and started "screaming and hollering" into his headset, he was so happy.
The veteran is a five-time champion, 41 years old, competing in his 43rd Winston Cup event here and winner of a Twin qualifier for the fourth straight year.
When Dale Earnhardt crossed the finish line, he put his arm out the window and waved to the fans. He was calm, content with the knowledge that his chances for victory in the 35th Daytona 500 are as good as or better than they've ever been.
It's the rookie and the veteran. They will start the 500 side by side -- one taking his first shot at winning the gold ring known as the Daytona 500, the other competing for the 14th time.
But, Sunday, the rookie and the veteran will be equals, each pursuing his first Daytona 500 victory.
"This is just as amazing to me as it is to you," Gordon said after winning the qualifier and earning the inside position on the second row behind pole sitter Kyle Petty.
Gordon averaged 153.270 mph in his DuPont Chevrolet for a two-car-length victory over veteran Bill Elliott, who was driving the Budweiser Ford.
Earnhardt drove his GM Goodwrench Chevrolet faster, averaging mph for a 1 1/2 -car-length victory over Motorcraft Ford driver Geoff Bodine.
Both Earnhardt and Gordon collected $35,200 for their wins.
"My wildest expectations would have never brought me to the victory circle here," said Gordon, who joins Johnny Rutherford as the only rookies to win a 125-miler. "I knew I had a good car, but I didn't think it was good enough to lead. Maybe I didn't have the self-confidence. Every lap, I thought the guys behind me were going to pass me, but they never did."
"The Gordon boy could win this race Sunday," said Earnhardt. "He's got a car that's good and he's that good a driver -- and he knows it. In my time, I've never seen a rookie driver with as much talent as he has."
The rookie continually was asked how he felt, what his strategy would be Sunday, was he nervous, would he be able to sleep?
The veteran heard a familiar refrain: Could he win it this time, would his career be incomplete without a Daytona 500 victory, why should this 125-mile victory be any more indicative of success Sunday than the three that came before it?
The rookie answered quickly. He is excited. He is nervous. He couldn't sleep Wednesday night thinking about the qualifying race, and he probably won't sleep at all Saturday night thinking about the 500.
"I know what I'm going to do tonight," said Gordon, who never saw a whole Winston Cup race until 1990. "I'm going home, and I'm going to replay every one of these 50 laps in my mind and enjoy it. It's unbelievable that I'm even in Sunday's race, let alone starting up front."
The veteran answered more thoughtfully. A lot of hard work and time had gone into creating this, his latest chance at winning the 500. But, no, he could live happily in retirement without a Daytona 500 victory, if he had to.
"I've accomplished a lot I'm proud of in my career, I won't be disappointed," Earnhardt said.
And as for why this time feels better than past years, Earnhardt said the off-season shake-up of his team, the change in crew chiefs from Kirk Shelmerdine to Andy Petree, refocused the team.
"The car is running well, and we're pumped," he said. "I run good at this racetrack. I haven't won, but I haven't run bad. I don't think the track has jinxed me or that I'm jinxed. We're going to go for this victory Sunday, and, if we get it, we'll celebrate. If we don't get it, we'll try the 15th, 16th or 17th time."
Gordon watched the second qualifying race yesterday. He said it appeared to him that Earnhardt is definitely the favorite. And then he stopped. Any one of the 110,000 fans who jammed this speedway yesterday could have heard his mind calculating the situation.
"I'm going out to beat the guys who are out there to beat," said Gordon, who did not need to add he plans to have his first Daytona 500 victory in a lot fewer than 14 tries.