DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Jeff Gordon was relaxed, smiling and enjoying a postrace news conference when someone dropped a bomb:
Have you heard reports that your car is too low?
The three-time Daytona 500 winner charged from fourth to first on the final lap of his 150-mile qualifying race Thursday, apparently making him a co-favorite with first-race winner Tony Stewart for Sunday's stock car Super Bowl.
Gordon was annoyed by the news that his Chevrolet had failed the inspection.
"Are you serious? That sucks. I'm mad about that right now," he said with a look of disbelief.
Asked what the penalty should be, Gordon wasn't sure.
"I mean, I think I should start the Daytona 500 on Sunday, but where I start will be the other thing," he said.
Turns out it will be next to last in the 43-car field.
NASCAR inspectors said Gordon's No. 24 Monte Carlo was almost an inch too low, but blamed it on a part failure — not cheating. He was not stripped of the victory.
"We feel it was unintentional, and actually fairly unsafe," said NASCAR competition director Robin Pemberton. "We feel that it was a part failure. ... I think it would be marginal at best if there was any advantage."
NASCAR said it believed a mechanic made a mistake when the shocks were installed before the race.
"One thing you can't argue is the car was low," Pemberton said. "We have to look at that, and as a result, it will move to the tail end."
Gordon's was the sixth team in three days to be caught with technical violations, and the season hasn't even begun.
The most serious of the violations was committed by the new team of Michael Waltrip, whose Toyota failed inspection after an illegal substance was found in the gas line. His crew chief and team director were suspended indefinitely and kicked out of Daytona International Speedway. Waltrip was docked 100 driver and car owner points.
Roush Fenway Racing president Geoff Smith said the team will file an appeal for the penalty assessed to Kenseth on the basis that NASCAR's system of assessing penalties is inconsistent.
"I'm sitting here, and Michael Waltrip gets two-thirds the penalty of the last fuel additive alteration situation, and (Kenseth) got an unprecedented, never-seen-before penalty," Smith said. "Now you've got Jeff Gordon, who gets absolutely nothing for a deal that was similar to ours."
There were no questions about Stewart's opening victory as he easily held off 2004 500 winner Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the closing laps. To add the 500 to his 11 other Daytona wins, Stewart likely will have to beat Earnhardt. And Gordon still could be a top challenger, even starting from the rear.
Stewart said he gladly would give up his other Daytona wins for a triumph Sunday.
"Yeah, the qualifying races and the Shootouts and the July race are great, but I really want this race on Sunday badly," he said.
Four drivers — two from each race — drove their way into the lineup Thursday, including Waltrip, who got what he wanted: a chance to prove he didn't need to cheat to make the 500.
"I'm just sad and happy at the same time," said Waltrip, who hours earlier apologized for his team's role in the cheating mess. "That's what Daytona does to you."
With an eighth-place finish, Waltrip and Boris Said, who nosed out Mike Bliss for 12th, advanced in the first qualifying race. They'll be joined in the 500 by Joe Nemechek and Mike Wallace, who finished ninth and 11th in the second race.
Kyle Busch led most of the second race, but lost the lead to his older brother Kurt, the 2003 series champion, and fell to sixth on the 54th lap. Meanwhile, Gordon seemed to come out of nowhere for the victory.
He pitted for two tires during a caution period 10 laps from the end, while the eight cars in front of him stayed on track. Gordon was 11th on the restart on lap 54 and slowly moved back into contention.
Gordon said it took some luck and some drafting help from J.J. Yeley to get to the front on the final trip around the 2.5-mile oval.
Kurt Busch wound up second, followed by David Stremme, Kyle Busch and former series champion Kenseth, who raced from the rear of the 30-car field after his qualifying speed Sunday was disqualified.
The first race was slowed by six caution flags, while there were only two in the second 150.
For a while, it looked as if James Hylton, the 72-year-old hoping for a comeback at Daytona, would make the field for his first 500 since 1983. After running as high as second by staying on the track when others pitted during a caution, he got shuffled back on a late restart and faded.
Others who failed to make the race included former open-wheel star A.J. Allmendinger; his teammate Brian Vickers; two-time Daytona winner Bill Elliott; 2002 Daytona 500 winner Ward Burton; and 1990 winner Derrike Cope.