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Published: Monday, 2/17/2003

Waltrip reigns again at Daytona 500

BY DAVE WOOLFORD
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - Michael Waltrip proposed to his wife, Buffy, in victory lane in 1993 at Bristol Motor Speedway after winning a NASCAR Busch Series race.

Yesterday in victory lane at Daytona International Speedway, he paid homage to another lady, Mother Nature.

Waltrip weathered five caution periods, two race stoppages because of rain and what he considered the horrible likelihood that the race might actually be restarted before finally being declared the winner of the 45th Daytona 500.

The race was stopped for the second and last time because of rain after 109 of the scheduled 200 laps with Waltrip in the lead. After a one-hour and 13-minute delay promised nothing but more rain, Waltrip got the green light to celebrate.

It was his third NASCAR Winston Cup career victory and his second Daytona 500 win. His Winston Cup win was also here in last July's Pepsi 400.

If you wonder how Waltrip could glorify a victory gained when rain made this the shortest Daytona 500 ever, you could say that he definitely had that privilege.

Waltrip was in victory lane here in 2001, his first triumph in 463 Winston Cup starts, when he was informed that his car owner, Dale Earnhardt, had died of injuries suffered in a crash in Turn4 as Waltrip was taking the checkered flag.

“I can't believe it. Someone said this race hadn't been rain-shortened since 1966 and I said, it's due, it's time to put another shortened one in the books.” Waltrip said. “I'm so thankful to Dale Earnhardt. He made this place more special for me and he was about this place. I'm thankful for the opportunity he gave me. I know he's smiling.”

Waltrip was also very thankful to Dale Earnhardt Jr., his teammate on the Dale Earnhardt, Inc. (DEI) racing team, even though a battery problem relegated Junior to a 36th-place finish.

On a restart following a caution period on lap 102, Jimmy Johnson was in the lead with Waltrip behind him. Earnhardt, with a new battery, was lined up on the inside with other lapped cars, including rookie Christian Fittipaldi, who was behind Earnhardt.

When the green flag waved, Waltrip quickly slid behind Earnhardt when Fittipaldi got off to a slow start. That left Johnson all alone on the outside. With no drafting help, he was hung out to dry.

Kurt Busch moved into second, with Johnson third. Two laps later Ward Burton hit the wall in Turn4, bringing out the fifth and last caution. That was quickly followed by the rain.

“I was hoping Junior would jump the 33 [Fittipaldi] and I could get behind the 8 [Earnhardt] and get past Jimmy, and it worked,” Waltrip explained. “You can only control what your car can do. I couldn't control if Jimmy jumped ahead of the 8 or got in behind Junior. That was just my plan and it worked. I got lucky there.

“I knew Junior wanted his lap back and he would be ready on the restart, and Christian was here for the first time and he might not be. The main thing was if I could get in the hole behind Junior fast enough. If Jimmy would have let off and gotten behind Junior my fate would have been sealed.”

Johnson said, “When we got the one-lap-to-go signal on that last caution, I looked in the mirror and I saw the 15 [Waltrip] and the 8, and they had their hands out the window. They were giving hand signals, pointing, thumbs up. I knew I was in trouble.

“My best option on the restart was to try to box Michael in so Junior and Michael couldn't get hooked up. The 33 [Fittipaldi] had a terrible restart and that allowed Michael to drop down. When that happened, everything I could do at that point was over and done with.”

Two laps later the field was slowly coasting into the pits in single file with the rain heavy and Waltrip lighthearted.

“The rain delay was pretty cool,” he said. “I never really imagined it would work out. I thought it would quit and we'd go back to racing. I told Buffy, `That's fine. I think I can win if we do that. We led the most laps and we're leading now. But I don't want to. I want it to stop right now. We've won it right now.'

“I was so thankful I was leading when the rain came. Who would have thought we would have to figure out a way to win after 109 laps? I'm blessed to be at the right place at the right time.”

This race has never been rained out. It was rain-shortened after 198 laps in 1966, with Richard Petty the victor, and in 1965 when Fred Lorenzen triumphed after 133 laps.

Waltrip and Earnhardt showed their restrictor-plate superiority early yesterday, having now won seven of the last nine restrictor-plate races at Daytona and Talladega. Junior was leading when, on lap 58, a three-car crash sent Ryan Newman cartwheeling into the infield grass, his car coming to rest upside down after flipping three times.

Newman walked away from the accident and was treated and released from the infield hospital.

The first rain stoppage came on lap 64. It lasted for an hour and eight minutes before the sun came out to help dry the track. With the clouds becoming increasingly ominous again, no one was holding anything back.

Johnson took on fuel only while everyone else was getting two right-side tire changes during a caution period on lap 96. That allowed him to take the lead.

Asked if he wasn't just a little disappointed that the race was rain-shortened, Waltrip laughed and said, “Oh, yeah, it's just ruining me. You know what I've heard? They're still going to pay me the whole amount. That's kind of crazy, isn't it?”



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