DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- It figured somebody would find a way to beat Michael Waltrip, a non-winner over his 15-year Winston Cup career, as the Daytona 500 wound down to the precious final laps Sunday.
Or maybe not.
Showing he had every bit as much savvy as some of NASCAR's top stars, as much car as Sterling Marlin and as much youthful energy as Dale Earnhardt Jr., Waltrip held off the wreck-reduced field for the history-making victory on stock car racing's biggest day.
''The car was handling so well, that I was in a position where I could just look in the mirror and watch them,'' Waltrip said. ''It all worked out perfectly.''
But he spoke not knowing that Dale Earnhardt, Waltrip's car owner, was killed in a brutal crash on the last turn of the last lap. The 49-year-old Earnhardt had to be cut from his battered car. He was rushed to Halifax Medical Center, where the seven-time Winston Cup champion was pronounced dead of head injuries.
''The only reason I won this race was Dale Earnhardt,'' Waltrip said. ''I was so looking forward to doing well for him.''
Marlin, who received slight contact during that final accident, wasn't nearly as emotional.
''That's part of it,'' he said. ''You line up and give it your best shot the last two or three laps. If it works out, it works out, if it doesn't, it doesn't. I've won them and lost them like that.''
So have the Earnhardts, and it seemed like a good bet one of them would take the checkered flag in this race if Marlin didn't.
Earnhardt Jr., won two races last season, contended at last year's Daytona 500 and, over the last week, talked frequently about dreams in which he envisioned himself winning in his second try here.
His father bullied his way around the track all afternoon in true Intimidator fashion. He bumped Marlin early to move into first place, did the same to rookie Ron Hornaday a little later, then traded paint with rookie Kurt Busch and -- did we see that right? -- made an obscene gesture as he passed by.
Earnhardt's fender was on Dale Jr.'s rear bumper as this race wound down, but there would be no trademark pass, no brusk move to the front, and no father-son showdown, a la 1988 when Bobby and Davey Allison raced to the finish line.
In fact, it seemed Earnhardt was more concerned with blocking Marlin and other cars in back of him than fighting for the lead. And that's when the accident came.
''I guess someone got into Dale, Dale flew up, I hit pretty hard and Dale hit harder,'' said Ken Schrader, who was involved in the final-lap wreck. ''Someone runs into someone for no reason, that's all that happened. The rules package was great, but you can't help this.''
Indeed, revamped aerodynamic packages made for entertaining racing with 49 lead changes among 14 drivers and tightly packed cars through the entire three hours of mayhem.
But close racing almost always brings accidents, and several contenders were eliminated after a fiery, 19-car crash with 25 laps remaining. Among them, Ward Burton, who along with his Dodge teammate, Marlin, had one of the strongest cars in the field.
''If mine wasn't, I don't know who's was,'' Burton said.
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