There were fireworks instead of beer cans, a spray of colored lights instead of a sudsy shower for Jeff Gordon when he crossed the finish line at Saturday's Pepsi 400.

But there was no speck of the controversy that marred NASCAR's previous restrictor-plate race, when Gordon earned an unpopular victory over Dale Earnhardt Jr. in a race that ended under caution.

"Wasn't near as many things thrown at me," Gordon pointed out early Sunday morning, making light of April's race at Talladega when fans expressed their displeasure in the form of flying aluminum. "Tonight, I don't think there was any debate. . . . I don't think there's any doubt in anybody's mind which team performed best all weekend, and all day, and all night."

Gordon was speaking strictly of his No. 24 Chevrolet, which won the pole and was the fastest car in the weekend's first practice session. But his comments were equally applicable to the Hendrick Motorsports operation.

On a Daytona track long dominated by the rival Chevrolets from Dale Earnhardt Inc., Hendrick placed all four of its cars in the top 10. Gordon and Jimmie Johnson finished first and second, while Terry Labonte and Brian Vickers claimed eighth and ninth, respectively.

Team owner Rick Hendrick was loath to declare even partial victory in the restrictor-plate skirmishes, although his genial mood spoke for itself.

"I don't want to brag yet, I don't want to make 'em mad," Hendrick said of DEI drivers Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Michael Waltrip, who had won 10 of the past 14 plate races. "We know that we gotta go back and work harder, because they're going to go back and work harder, and so are a lot of the other teams."

So it was left to the Hendrick drivers to put the results in perspective.

"If anybody doubted that Hendrick Motorsports was closing the gap after Talladega . . . I think tonight showed that Hendrick Motorsports has got all the speed and the commitment and the drivers to get the job done," Johnson said.

"It's a great day for Hendrick," added Vickers, a 20-year-old rookie. "It took all the Hendrick cars working together to beat them guys. You know what they say, two heads are better than one and four are better than two."

And while Vickers may have taken license with the cliche, his sentiment was entirely accurate. Drafting help is essential at NASCAR's four plate races, where curbs on speed tend to bunch the field, and the Hendrick quartet occasionally sacrificed track position to stick together. By the race's three-quarter mark, all four drivers were situated in the top five.

Earnhardt, who won the Daytona 500 in February, was unwilling to cede ground to the Hendrick crew after Saturday's race.

"Every time I go to the racetrack [I think] I've got the best racecar, the best team," he said. "I'm the best driver no matter where we are."

Lately, though, Gordon has the results on his side. After a few rough weeks, the four-time Cup champion has won two straight races and three straight poles.

His surge wasn't lost on Byron Leftwich, the race's grand marshal. The Jacksonville Jaguars' quarterback and former H.D. Woodson star launched into a lengthy discourse on his fantasy NASCAR team before the race, praising Gordon in particular.

Leftwich also picked Waltrip, who was roaming the media center at the time. Upon hearing his name, the veteran driver beamed and approached Leftwich for a handshake and a laugh.

Waltrip went on to lead 57 of 160 laps, second only to Gordon, but he faded late and finished 13th.

Jeff Gordon is greeted upon his victory at Pepsi 400. "I don't think there's any doubt in anybody's mind which team performed best all weekend," he said.