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Waltrip reigns Daytona again

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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.

"If this race had run to its conclusion, I bet the No. 8 car [Earnhardt] would have gotten back on the lead lap," said Busch.

"When we got the one to go under caution, I looked in my mirror and I saw the 15 and 8," Johnson said of Waltrip and Earnhardt. "Hands out the window, hand signals, pointing thumbs up. I knew I was in trouble."

Waltrip and Earnhardt haven't lost many at Daytona lately. Between them, they've won four of the past five races on this 2.5-mile superspeedway, dating to that fateful 2001 500.

That day, Michael Waltrip couldn't celebrate because his heart was breaking. That day, the water that ran down his face was from tears of sadness. Yesterday, it was rain and Waltrip lifted his face to the sky and grinned.

"When Dale lost his life, it became another chapter in the history of Daytona," said Waltrip. "It's a chapter that will never be closed. ... I loved Dale. He was my friend, and his death here just makes it more dear to me. I know that 2001 500 will never be considered a great race, and I'm OK with that. But this is the Daytona 500, and I'm just thankful to be the winner of it again."

Daytona 500

Results

At Daytona Beach, Fla.

Lap length: 2.5 miles 1. (4) Michael Waltrip, Chevrolet, 109, $1,410,706.

2. (36) Kurt Busch, Ford, 109, $1,022,451.

3. (10) Jimmie Johnson, Chevrolet, 109, $702,876.

4. (31) Kevin Harvick, Chevrolet, 109, $564,980.

5. (26) Mark Martin, Ford, 109, $439,959.

6. (3) Robby Gordon, Chevrolet, 109, $359,026.

7. (8) Tony Stewart, Chevrolet, 109, $310,804.

8. (20) Jeremy Mayfield, Dodge, 109, $240,376.

9. (18) Mike Wallace, Dodge, 109, $215,401.

10. (11) Dale Jarrett, Ford, 109, $240,670.

11. (9) Jeff Burton, Ford, 109, $230,537.

12. (13) Jeff Gordon, Chevrolet, 109, $233,998.

13. (30) Kyle Petty, Dodge, 109, $193,526.

14. (24) Jack Sprague, Pontiac, 109, $180,251.

15. (5) Ricky Rudd, Ford, 109, $215,945.

16. (21) Kenny Wallace, Dodge, 109, $179,770.

17. (7) Sterling Marlin, Dodge, 109, $223,012.

18. (6) Todd Bodine, Ford, 109, $190,401.

19. (40) Johnny Benson, Pontiac, 109, $203,970.

20. (35) Matt Kenseth, Ford, 109, $195,695.

21. (27) Greg Biffle, Ford, 109, $172,845.

22. (15) Joe Nemechek, Chevrolet, 109, $175,945.

23. (16) Elliott Sadler, Ford, 109, $185,001.

24. (39) Dave Blaney, Ford, 109, $196,026.

25. (38) Rusty Wallace, Dodge, 109, $185,625.

26. (25) Ricky Craven, Pontiac, 109, $181,220.

27. (29) Casey Mears, Dodge, 109, $190,270.

28. (42) Jerry Nadeau, Pontiac, 109, $180,265.

29. (32) Steve Park, Chevrolet, 109, $196,995.

30. (41) Terry Labonte, Chevrolet, 109, $198,703.

31. (19) Jamie McMurray, Dodge, 109, $166,545.

32. (14) Bill Elliott, Dodge, 109, $204,057.

33. (33) Tony Raines, Chevrolet, 109, $167,201.

34. (12) John Andretti, Dodge, 108, $203,164.

35. (34) Christian Fittipaldi, Chevrolet, 108, $173,206.

36. (2) Dale Earnhardt Jr, Chevrolet, 108, $215,976.

37. (43) Mike Skinner, Pontiac, 108, $163,220.

38. (17) Ward Burton, Dodge, 105, crash, $206,045.

39. (1) Jeff Green, Chevrolet, 94, crash, $198,070.

40. (23) Jimmy Spencer, Dodge, 94, crash, $161,970.

41. (22) Bobby Labonte, Chevrolet, 81, $198,179.

42. (28) Ken Schrader, Dodge, 57, crash, $161,826.

43. (37) Ryan Newman, Dodge, 56, crash, $169,138.

Race Statistics Time of Race: 2 hours, 2 minutes, 8 seconds.

Margin of Victory: Under Caution.

Winner's Average Speed: 133.870 mph.

Caution Flags: Five for 23 laps.

Lead Changes: Eleven among 8 drivers.

Lap Leaders: Green 0; Waltrip 1-34; Kenseth 35-36; Stewart 37-42; Earnhardt Jr. 43-64; Mears 65; M.Waltrip 66-95; Johnson 96; Bodine 97; Craven 98; Johnson 99-105; Waltrip 106-109.

Point Standings: 1. Waltrip, 185. 2. Busch, 170. 3. Johnson, 170. 4. Harvick, 160. 5. Martin, 155. 6. Stewart, 151. 7. R.Gordon, 150. 8. Mayfield, 142. 9. M.Wallace, 138. 10. Jarrett, 134.

All-time winners

2003 - Michael Waltrip

2002 - Ward Burton

2001 - Michael Waltrip

2000 - Dale Jarrett

1999 - Jeff Gordon

1998 - Dale Earnhardt

1997 - Jeff Gordon

1996 - Dale Jarrett

1995 - Sterling Marlin

1994 - Sterling Marlin

1993 - Dale Jarrett

1992 - Davey Allison

1991 - Ernie Irvan

1990 - Derrike Cope

1989 - Darrell Waltrip

1988 - Bobby Allison

1987 - Bill Elliott

1986 - Geoff Bodine

1985 - Bill Elliott

1984 - Cale Yarborough

1983 - Cale Yarborough

1982 - Bobby Allison

1981 - Richard Petty

1980 - Buddy Baker

1979 - Richard Petty

1978 - Bobby Allison

1977 - Cale Yarborough

1976 - David Pearson

1975 - Benny Parsons

1974 - Richard Petty

1973 - Richard Petty

1972 - A.J. Foyt

1971 - Richard Petty

1970 - Pete Hamilton

1969 - LeeRoy Yarborough

1968 - Cale Yarborough

1967 - Mario Andretti

1966 - Richard Petty

1965 - Fred Lorenzen

1964 - Richard Petty

1963 - Tiny Lund

1962 - Fireball Roberts

1961 - Marvin Panch

1960 - Junior Johnson

1959 - Lee Petty

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