Tue, Feb 18, 2003 - Page 19 News List

Waltrip runs out winner of Daytona 500

DARK CLOUDS ABOVE A rain-shortened Daytona 500 race was won by Michael Waltrip, as favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr suffered mechanical problems. Kurt Busch was second and Jimmie Johnson was third

AP , DAYTONA BEACH, FLORIDA

Ryan Newman's number 12 Alltel Dodge disintegrates as he crashes near the start-finish line during running of the Daytona 500 at the Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Florida, on Sunday.

PHOTO: REUTERS

Michael Waltrip is the new master of Daytona. He doesn't win anywhere else.

It's a burden well worth bearing -- being the best driver in NASCAR's biggest race, at stock-car racing's most famous track.

Under dark clouds, Waltrip raced past leader Jimmie Johnson after a restart on lap 106 on Sunday to win the rain-shortened Daytona 500 for the second time in three years.

Counting last year's Pepsi 400, Waltrip has three victories in the last five races at Daytona International Speedway. Those are the only ones in his 535 career starts.

Favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr., done in by a bad alternator and dead battery, helped his friend and teammate take the lead on the last green-flag lap.

``I had a plan,'' Waltrip said. ``I knew what I had to do. I had to get behind Junior. I did that and I was able to squeeze out the win.''

Waltrip's first Winston Cup victory came at the 2001 Daytona 500, in his first race with Dale Earnhardt Inc. But his joy was wiped away by the fatal last-lap crash of Dale Earnhardt Sr., his boss and friend.

After his latest victory, Waltrip paid tribute to the seven-time Winston Cup champion and Daytona's winningest driver with 34 wins, including the 1998 Daytona 500.

``I'm so thankful -- thankful for Dale Earnhardt,'' Waltrip said. ``He made this place so special over the years. He was about this race. I know he's smiling now.''

Kurt Busch finished second, followed by Johnson and Kevin Harvick. Mark Martin, last year's series runner-up, was fifth, with Robby Gordon sixth and defending Winston Cup champion Tony Stewart seventh.

Waltrip followed Earnhardt Jr., who had been lapped, past Johnson in a tight two-car draft.

As the leaders neared the finish line, defending champion Ward Burton spun and slammed into the fourth-turn wall, bringing out the fifth caution flag of the day.

Moments later, rain fell for the second time, and cars were stopped on pit road to wait after completing 109 of 200 laps.

Waltrip spent the delay sitting in the rain with his wife, Buffy.

``We were just enjoying a day in the rain in Florida,'' he said. ``We were just goofing off, laughing about the opportunity that we had here to be winners of the Daytona 500. ``That's what we talked about, you know, we don't need it to go on, we won. Let's just stop now.''

After a little more than an hour, NASCAR declared Waltrip the winner. As anticlimactic as the triumph might have been, his team celebrated in a garage 100 yards from Victory Lane.

Buffy Waltrip and Earnhardt's widow, Teresa, hugged. Waltrip lifted the trophy high above his head as the crew sprayed beer and champagne all over him. With a drizzle still falling, Waltrip insisted they move the celebration to a rain-slickened Victory Lane.

Waltrip has practically owned Daytona's famed 4km oval the past few seasons.

He finished second to Earnhardt Jr. in the 2001 Pepsi 400 and was fifth in last year's 500 after winning a qualifying race. Three-time Winston Cup champion Darrell Waltrip's younger brother finally got to fully enjoy a victory in July, taking the 2002 Pepsi race.

The tandem of Waltrip and Earnhardt Jr. dominated this 500.

Junior, the heavy favorite after winning three preliminary races in eight days, led 22 laps and was still out front when he started having electrical problems.

He finally slowed on lap 88 and drove slowly into the pits the next time around. He lost two laps -- and his shot at victory.

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