LONG POND, Pa. -- Darrell Waltrip's return to Pocono International Raceway was a big improvement over his last visit.
Last August, he struggled to finish one lap before giving way to a relief driver. Two weeks before that race, he had suffered multiple injuries in a crash at the Daytona 500 and was advised not to drive.
Yesterday, he won the Champion Spark Plug 500, finishing 1.92 seconds ahead of Dale Earnhardt.
The race featured a 1-hour, 40-minute rain delay and a nip-and-tuck battle for the lead between Waltrip and Earnhardt for 16 laps before Waltrip took the lead for good on lap 183.
"When I came up here last year, that was the most miserable trip that I had ever been on in my life, just to try and run for one lap," said Waltrip. "Thinking of it, it was probably the dumbest thing that I've ever done.
"It sure feels good to come back here and have some success. I've run well here over the years, and today was just one of those days."
Many in the estimated crowd of 110,000, who were soaked by a downpour, might have called it a crazy afternoon, since 13 different drivers held the lead at some time.
Mickey Gibbs, who was fine after crashing on lap 148, might consider it an unlucky day. Jimmy Spencer, the front-runner before the rain delay who has never won a NASCAR race, was left behind as Earnhardt, Waltrip and a host of others forged ahead in the last 50 laps.
"Some of the cars that were running good before the rain kind of fell back and did not do well after it rained," said Waltrip. "We came to the pit and made a little adjustment, anticipating that the track might be a little different. It took about 10 or so laps there to get rolling, so we made a real good decision with what we thought we could do and it worked out real well."
In winning his second NASCAR race of the year, Waltrip moved up to third in the point standings for the Winston Cup Championship Series title and its $1 million bonus. Earnhardt is 120 points of Ricky Rudd.
Earnhardt, the defending Winston Cup champion, can strengthen his lead in the Miller Genuine Draft 400 next week in Brooklyn, Mich. Earnhardt and Waltrip likely will race again in the Miller Draft 500 in July on this raceway, which has tricky turns and straightaways.
"It appeared to me the longer he ran, the handle kind of came off his car -- not seriously -- but he didn't stay quite as good as I seemed to be able to," said Waltrip. "He went into turn one, and he accidentally jumped off the track just a little bit, and that allowed me to drive around the side of him.
"Actually he was quite a gentleman about the whole thing. I passed him and checked on out. He's not the type of driver you play around with. Either you get the job done or get out of the way."
Once Waltrip passed Earnhardt with 17 laps remaining, he built a two-second lead with 10 laps left.
Mark Martin held off three other drivers to take third, with Harry Gant fourth, followed by Geoff Bodine. None of them threatened to challenge for the lead in the final 20 laps.
"During the winter months, when we were putting this team together, working 18 hours a day and seven days a week, I had no idea we would have this much success," said Waltrip. "I had a a dream, a vision. Actually it started in 1973 when I had my own car and I had my own team. I had a pretty impressive lineup of people working for me at that time, but I had no money.
"I couldn't sustain myself; I just couldn't keep going and I had trouble three or four times and I couldn't afford to keep going."
His pockets are full now,thanks to the $ 60,650 first-place check.