So much for speculation that the edge had worn off Jeff Gordon's sheer desire to win the wild ones.
The 47th Daytona 500 was a brawl in its waning laps Sunday, and Gordon won it. Then he kept it up for three laps of overtime to win the first-ever Daytona 507.5.
He won regulation by overpowering the usually dominant Dale Earnhardt Jr., then held off both Earnhardt and reigning Nextel Cup champion Kurt Busch under NASCAR's new "green-white-checkered" rule meant to keep races from finishing under caution.
It was Gordon's 70th career win and third in this race, yet, "This one's sweeter than the other two," he said. Just as in 1997 and '99, he said he felt he'd won on "good cars, and just raw desire and belief that we could do it -- just wanting it so bad."
He won, and lost, and won, so many split-second duels with so many other drivers through the afternoon that he said, "Man, I don't know where to start. There were so many key moments."
The most memorable ones, as usual here, were in the final few laps.
With three laps left of the regulation 200, just when Gordon thought Earnhardt had it won -- again -- Gordon got a tremendous shove from behind from teammate Jimmie Johnson. That gave him so much momentum it left Earnhardt feeling like a helpless victim down the backstretch with just over two laps left.
"He was going by so fast I couldn't even draft off the side of him to try to slow him down," Earnhardt said of the showdown of two Chevrolets. "He was gone."
"Anytime you get up beside that 8 car [Earnhardt's] and pass it, and consider his fan base and his record here, it's rewarding," Gordon said.
But a moment after Gordon took the lead from Earnhardt on Lap 198, a wreck brought out a caution, triggering the "green-white-checkered" rule.
That gave Earnhardt another shot at repeating his 500 win of last year. And for the overtime, Busch made it a three-for-all.
As the field rode under caution, the scoreboard clicked off what would normally have been the final lap, and then a 201st, before the green flag flew. Overtime, as instituted last year, is a two-lap sprint, which brought Sunday's total to 203 on the 2.5-mile Daytona International Speedway.
"[For 202 and 203,] the best thing that happened to me was Kurt Busch," Gordon said. On the restart, Busch came flying up behind Earnhardt and appeared ready to push him into the lead but then whipped around Earnhardt into second place.
Busch, threatening to give Ford its first 500 victory since Dale Jarrett in 2000, made his bid on the final lap, down the backstretch and well into Turn 3. But by the fourth and final turn Busch realized he must either drop in behind Gordon or cause a big wreck.
"I wouldn't have cleared him coming off Turn 4," Busch said. "It probably would have been three-wide, four-wide, and there probably would have been a six-car pileup at the finish line."
So Busch was happy as the runner-up.
"I had that butterfly in the stomach feeling of, 'I've got a shot at winning the Daytona 500,' " Busch said. "But I know I wouldn't have cleared him if I'd gone to his outside, and I'm going to stick with that in my mind. I'm going to be happy with that decision. I'm not going to kick myself."
Earnhardt wound up third, followed by Scott Riggs, Johnson and Mark Martin.
Tony Stewart, who led the most laps in the race, 107, got shuffled back in the late going and finished seventh.
Gordon, now 33, was just 25 when he won his first Daytona 500, and 27 when he won his second. Both of those were after head-to-head duels with Dale Earnhardt Sr.
Back then, Gordon was known for winning with fearless moves. But in recent years, critics questioned his desire.
But this one was like the other two, Gordon said, in that "they all came down to something we had to do out of the ordinary -- to make a risky move to get the victory. They were not given to us.
"The risk I took this time was when I was in second behind Stewart [on a restart with seven laps left in regulation] and I knew Junior was not gonna go with me," Gordon said.
During that caution period, Earnhardt, running third, had agreed via radio to give Stewart rather than Gordon a shove. But on the restart, Gordon pulled outside Stewart anyway, taking on the Stewart-Earnhardt tag-team by himself for a couple of laps until Johnson could work up through the field and help.
Earnhardt didn't help Stewart for long. Soon after keeping Stewart in front of Gordon, Earnhardt shot by Stewart on Lap 197.
"When I saw that 8 take the lead, I didn't give up, but I thought it was over," Gordon said.
But Earnhardt could hold the lead for only one lap before Gordon blew past him.
So the nerve was still there to win the wild ones.
"I appreciate this one more than the others," Gordon said, "because I've been in the sport so much longer, and I've realized how hard it really is to win this race."
Ed Hinton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times