Waltrip makes 500; Stewart, Gordon win Duels

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Nextel Cup stars Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon were winners. Veteran drivers Joe Nemechek and Mike Wallace raced their way into the Daytona 500. And Michael Waltrip earned a little redemption at his favorite track.

NASCAR returned to some semblance of normalcy Thursday after a week of turmoil. Well, at least for a few hours.

It looked like a day of no penalties, no fines and no suspensions. Just racing. Wouldn't that be refreshing?

It was too good to be true. News came late in the day that Jeff Gordon's No. 24 Chevy failed an inspection after he won the second of two 150-mile qualifying races. The quarter panels were too low.

"It was nice to get out there and just go racing,'' Gordon said before learning about the problem. "I've been glued to the TV as much as anybody else over all this stuff. Between that and Anna Nicole Smith, I couldn't pull away."

And now he's part of the sideshow. Instead of starting the Daytona 500 on the second row, Gordon will start 42nd. That's his punishment.

His victory will stand. NASCAR officials said the problem probably was unintentional. It was the fourth qualifying race win of Gordon's career and his second in a row.

Stewart got his second win in a Daytona qualifier, but his third consecutive victory in a Daytona race. Stewart won the Bud Shootout last weekend and the Pepsi 400 last July. He's the clear favorite to win his first Daytona 500 on Sunday.

If it's anything like the two Gatorade Duel qualifying races, don't miss it. Both races were fun to watch. But the end of the day was more news from the NASCAR penal code.

Toyota finally got some good news after an embarrassing debut week in Cup racing. Two Camry drivers earned their way into the Daytona 500 -- rookie David Reutimann and Waltrip.

Waltrip was the surprise of the day. His day started with a remorseful apology over his team's transgression. Then he took Reutimann's backup, got in it for the first time and got in the 500.

It left Toyota 50/50 in its Daytona effort. Four of eight cars made the race. Camry drivers Jeremy Mayfield, Brian Vickers, A.J. Allmendinger and Mike Skinner didn't qualify.

But Michael Waltrip Racing went 3-for-3 in its first race. Quite a change from 24 hours earlier, when Waltrip's team endured one of the biggest penalties in NASCAR history -- a $100,000 fine, 100 points docked and two employees suspended.

Waltrip said he considered not racing Thursday, but wife Buffy convinced him to do it. And he proved he still knows a thing or two about drafting in a restrictor-plate race.

He started last in the 31-car field and finished eighth, despite a collision with Dale Earnhardt Jr. early in the race. Waltrip wasn't celebrating, but it beats the alternative.

"To tell the truth, I think he got off easy," Nemechek said. "It gave the sport a black eye and we have to recover from that. I think Michael Waltrip is very fortunate to be in this race."

Some the drivers weren't so fortunate Thursday. Mike Bliss finished 13th out of 31 cars in the first race, but he's going home.

That's how it works out in a ridiculously convoluted qualifying format that Bill Gates' accountant couldn't decipher.

"It's a crock," Bliss said. "No one knows how this thing works."

Look at the positive side, Mike. At least your Bam Racing Dodge was legal.

Eighteen drivers packed up and left after Thursday's races. Former Daytona 500 winners Ward Burton, Bill Elliott and Derrike Cope were among them.

Paul Menard, a rookie for Dale Earnhardt Inc., also failed to get in despite a 15th-place showing out of 30 cars in the second qualifying race.

One driver didn't have a good finish, but he had an impressive Daytona debut. Juan Pablo Montoya led 18 laps in the second race before a wheel-bearing failure caused him to brush the wall, ending his day.

"He passed me without any problem," Gordon said. "And I like to think I'm one of the hardest guys to pass out here."

Especially if his car is outside the rules.

The total on team violators this week now is six, and we're still three days away from the Daytona 500. Before he knew of his own team's rule-breaking day, Gordon looked at the bright side.

"I hate it for the sport to see it get turned into this," Gordon said. "But it's drawing attention and people are watching. Now we can go out on Sunday and put on a three-wide battle to the finish."

You'll have to wait for the postrace inspection to find out if they do it legally.

Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. He can be reached at