By Jerry Bonkowski
The Sports Xchange
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- While Jeremy Mayfield, Tommy Baldwin and Scott Riggs struck a blow for the little guy in Thursday's Gatorade Twin 150 qualifying races, Jeff Gordon and Kyle Busch no longer need a road map to find their way back to victory lane.
Gordon, who has not won a points-paying race since Charlotte in October 2007, is still looking for a points-paying win, but he'll gladly take his victory in the first of the Twin 150s, putting him in the third starting position in Sunday's 51st Daytona 500.
"It feels fantastic," said Gordon, who has won five 500 qualifiers in his career. "We talked before the race that it doesn't matter if it's a qualifying race or the Daytona 500. Any confidence-builder and momentum that we can get is a positive.
"I hope the fans enjoyed it, because it was fun from where I was sitting, not just because I went to victory lane."
Meanwhile, Busch, who has not won a Cup race since last August at Watkins Glen -- followed by a complete implosion in the Chase for the Sprint Cup -- beat sentimental 500 favorite Mark Martin in Thursday's second qualifier.
Gordon won six races in 2007, finishing second to teammate Jimmie Johnson in the championship race. It extended his streak of winning at least two races per season since 1994.
But last season, the 16-year Cup veteran failed to win even one race, let alone two. It was the first time he was shut out of victory lane in a single season since his rookie year, 1993.
So, while Busch said winning Thursday wasn't all that big of a deal in the whole big picture -- he'd prefer to have lost the qualifier if it meant he'd win in Sunday's 500 -- Gordon couldn't be happier.
"Heck, yeah," he said. "Any win's exciting and meaningful to us right now. I think what makes this special is, one, these races aren't easy to win. It takes a good race car, a great race team, to pull it off, and a little bit of luck, some good moves. That fortunately worked out for us.
"But right now I think that because of the pressure that we felt from being winless last year, it's important for us to gain some momentum and confidence, that we're doing the right things for Steve and the calls he's making, and for me and the moves I'm making, just to be together, in synch as a team.
"That's what today does. It just puts a smile on everybody's face. Everybody is patting one another on the back and really excited about Sunday's race."
Just as big as Gordon winning the first 150 was Tony Stewart finishing second. He had a chance to make a late run at Gordon but decided the risk wasn't worth the reward when he still has practice sessions Friday and Saturday and then has the big race on Sunday.
Stewart has won two Cup championships and 33 Cup races in his career, including two wins in the Brickyard 400, at Talladega and at all but three tracks on the Cup schedule (Darlington, Fontana and Las Vegas).
He also has won twice at Daytona, but both have come in the summer race. Winning the 500 for the first time is made even more important because he's starting his first season with a new team, which he co-owns.
"I'm real happy," Stewart said. "We kind of picked up where we left off the other night (he also finished second in the Budweiser Shootout on Saturday). This car is a little better than our Shootout car was. It drove great today.
"I'm just really proud of Darian Grubb and the Old Spice Office Depot team. They've done a great job. It still amazes me how much they got done in such a short amount of time to come down here."
Three-time defending Cup champion Jimmie Johnson finished third behind Gordon and Stewart. No surprise there. But the guy who finished behind Johnson in fourth was a surprise: rookie Joey Logano.
"I think we accomplished everything we needed to do," Logano said. "Our main goal was to go out there and finish the race. That was more than we got in the Shootout (he was involved in a wreck in that event).
"We're just going to keep going, gain some respect from these guys like I've been saying all week. I feel like we accomplished that. We can work on our car a little bit more and get ready for the 500."
In the second 150, Busch sparred most of the second half of the 60-lap event with Martin. And while Martin led 36 laps, Busch led only the final five to claim the win.
"It felt really good," Busch said. "This whole team has really worked hard. This whole offseason everybody has. From where we ended last year, it felt like it was pretty cool to start off the season this way."
Two other stories of significance were Jeremy Mayfield and A.J. Allmendinger racing their way into the 500, Mayfield driving for his own team, and Allmendinger driving the No. 44 for Richard Petty Motorsports.
Given the appetizer fans digested Thursday, the main course on Sunday promises to be a full-course meal of anticipation, cheering and excitement.
Perhaps Gordon put it in the best perspective when he was asked to sum up how the racing Thursday will affect the Great American Race on Sunday.
"I don't think the show can get any better for the fans than what we've seen so far, but it probably will on Sunday," he said.