Waltrip reigns Daytona again

After weather delays, he's declared winner with 109 laps completed

`I know Dale is smiling now'

500 is place of 1st victory, death of close friend in '01

Daytona 500

February 17, 2003|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - If your car is wrapped in a rain tarp on pit road and you are declared the official winner of the Daytona 500, how do you celebrate?

If you're Michael Waltrip, you run with your team onto the soaking green grass of the front stretch, and then whoop and holler and jump up and down and wave to a grandstand that is still fairly full of people, even in the pouring rain.

"I know Dale is smiling now," said Waltrip, who won his first Daytona 500 the day his car owner, seven-time Winston Cup champion Dale Earnhardt, died in the fourth turn on the last lap of the 2001 race.

"This place and Dale were one," Waltrip said. "If you're going to die, you need to go someplace where you feel comfortable, and this was that place for Dale.

"I'm thankful for the opportunity he gave me. He might have been the only one big enough to get me this ride. ... It's just amazing that we put this car in the front and then it rained. You can't know what it means, unless you've spent your life pursuing dreams."

Rain was racing toward Daytona International Speedway all day. It stopped the race once, just 64 laps after it started. And then, minutes after Waltrip had followed his teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr., who was running a lap down, into the lead, the rain came again and stayed.

"Ask me if I care that the race was shortened," said Waltrip. "I told Buffy [his wife] during that last rain delay that I thought I could win if we had to go back racing. But I didn't want to."

Nearly everyone expected history to be made in this 45th Daytona 500, but no one expected Waltrip and the weather to make it.

Waltrip is now a two-time winner. He won his first 500 and his first career victory as Earnhardt died, after a record 463 fruitless starts in the Winston Cup series.

Yesterday, he won the shortest Daytona 500 in history. Just 109 of the 200 laps were completed.

Waltrip now has three career victories, and all of them - two Daytona 500s and one Pepsi 400 - have come at Daytona. The Daytona 500 dates to 1959 and has never been postponed because of rain. It has been shortened by rain, but only twice before - in 1965, when Fred Lorenzen won after 332.5 miles, and in 1966, when Richard Petty won after 495 miles.

"Luckily, I was able to get the lead," said Waltrip, who drove the No. 15 Dale Earnhardt, Inc. Chevrolet at an average speed of 133.870 mph. "Usually in these restrictor plate races, it's the last 20 laps where everyone runs into you. But here, with the weather, it was like that forever.

"It just moves my heart to be in this position."

The result wasn't all luck, however. A lot of it had to do with power and teamwork, a fact that wasn't lost on the rest of the field.

Coming into yesterday's race, nearly everyone predicted the DEI cars would dominate and that Waltrip's teammate, Earnhardt Jr., would win. Earnhardt had the strongest car all week and swept the Bud Shootout, his half of the Twin 125-mile qualifying races, and the Busch Series race.

But Saturday, after winning the Koolerz 300 Busch race, Earnhardt said he didn't like his odds in the 500.

"Every time I win another race down here, I feel like I'm ruining my chances for Sunday," he said. "The odds - no one has ever done it, swept all four. I don't like to think about it. ... And Michael's car is really the stronger car."

Earnhardt did take the lead during the first series of pit stops on laps 34 and 35 and held it for 22 laps, until the first rain delay. When the cars were restarted an hour and eight minutes later, Waltrip took the lead and Earnhardt rode second until his car lost power and he lost two laps during a battery change.

"When that happened," said second-place finisher Kurt Busch, "you could see everybody's eyes light up. Everybody's foot got heavier on the gas. It was a whole new race."

At that point, it certainly looked like Earnhardt was out of it. That meant Waltrip would be on his own in a restrictor plate race for the first time since the two teamed up at DEI three years ago.

"It inspired me," said Waltrip. "They say we can't win without teammates. ... I wanted to win today without him to show people don't really know everything."

But strange things happen in the Daytona 500.

Waltrip lost the lead on another series of pit stops, when Jimmie Johnson's No. 48 Rick Hendrick-owned car decided to take gas only on a stop on Lap 98. But Johnson pitted on that lap because of a caution flag, and that caution allowed Earnhardt, who was racing to get back one of those lost laps, to move up near the front on the inside lane for the restart.

When the initial shuffling sorted itself out, Earnhardt was third in line behind Johnson and his DEI teammate Waltrip. When the caution flag flew again, on Lap 103, Earnhardt, about to get one lap back, made a move to go to the front. Waltrip jumped on his bumper and went to the front with the only on-track pass for the lead all day. Busch, in his No. 97 Jack Roush Ford, tagged along for the ride.

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