DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - If anyone believes life is stranger than fiction, it is Michael Waltrip.
The only previous win in Waltrip's career came here at Daytona International Speedway in the Daytona 500 after 462 futile starts.
And at the very moment he was crossing the finish line in the sport's most important race, with his teammate, Dale Earnhardt Jr., finishing right behind him, his best friend and car owner Dale Earnhardt was killed in a crash a quarter-mile behind him.
Last night in the Pepsi 400, Waltrip, in his 515th start, got his second career win. It came on the same track. It came after a 14-car accident that caused the 180,000 fans to catch their breath as driver Joe Nemechek hit the first turn wall so hard his mother, Martha, watching from the pits, could not restrain her tears.
But Nemechek suffered only a bruised foot and Waltrip, a mentally tough man, could rejoice and celebrate with abandon.
"I'm real proud," said Waltrip, whose NAPA Chevrolet averaged 135.952 mph in a race that finished under the caution flag. "We won the race while fending off a challenge from our teammate. This car was just like it was in the Daytona 500. It fits like an old pair of ... tennis shoes. I love just squeezing down into it."
Besides being Waltrip's second victory, it was the fifth victory in seven restrictor-plate races - races in which speed is curtailed by the use of a metal plate to limit airflow to the carburetor - for Dale Earnhardt's teams since his death.
"Performing like we're able to is, well, because Dale Earnhardt put his signature on this sport by his ability to win plate races - because of that, for his team to do this would make him proud," said Waltrip. "I've been in kind of a good place mentally since last fall, but I'm thinking of him and the last time I was in this position and I'll see how I feel tomorrow."
The final caution flag came out with three laps to go when Ryan Newman blew a tire coming out of turn two. The ensuing decision by NASCAR to finish the race under yellow didn't seem to sit well with many fans on the backstretch, who threw trash, seat cushions and Pepsi cans onto the track.
"I've never seen anything like that," said Rusty Wallace, whose second-place finish was his best of the season.
Following Waltrip, who at first thought the fans were just celebrating his win, and Wallace to the finish line were Winston Cup points leader Sterling Marlin - who gained 15 points to increase his lead to 77 points - Jimmy Spencer and Mark Martin, who is second in the points race.
Waltrip's teammate, Earnhardt Jr., finished sixth after giving up his second-place position in an attempt to win. Earnhardt tried to pull up beside Waltrip to make the pass, but Wallace chose to go with Waltrip instead of Earnhardt and the son of the late seven-time champion fell back to sixth.
"I had a really fast car, just like Junior had at Talladega," said Waltrip, who finished second to his teammate in that restrictor-plate race. "I had an opportunity at Talladega to do what he did here, but I knew the cars behind me would go with the best car and that was Junior at Talladega. Here it was me and Rusty got behind me and that was that.
"But I'm happy Junior did it. My opinion was that he was going to try. I know him. He's that competitive he'd be kicking himself if he was in second and didn't try."
Earnhardt stayed behind Waltrip most of the race until deciding to make his move with less than five laps to go.
"When it came down to the last few laps, you gotta race," Earnhardt said. "I don't think anybody would want us to kind of just sit there and cookie-cutter the whole thing and orchestrate the finish. I tried to make a move and kind of came up short. Michael went on to win the race. That's good. He needed a win."
Earlier this season, it was said that Waltrip's job with Dale Earnhardt Inc. was in jeopardy. But now, after an eight-race run of Top 10 finishes and this victory, his job situation should be clearing up."We'll sit down and discuss it here soon," Waltrip said. "I'll have a ride next year, but I want it to be this one."
The evening began with a glorious patriotic display as 250 U.S. Marines unfurled a gigantic American flag and Apache helicopters and F-16s did flyovers.
But the race was barely under way when precision turned into mayhem. Johnny Benson hit the turn-three wall on Lap 10 after being squeezed by Waltrip. Benson suffered two cracked two ribs.
In a frenzied series of pit stops that followed, Todd Bodine's rear-tire changer, William Curwood, was hit and was taken for X-rays on his right knee and lower right leg.
Nemechek, who had the scary incident, said, "All I can say is, I thank God for the HANS," he said, referring to the head and neck restraint system that has become required equipment since, and because of, the death of Earnhardt.