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Deaths mar Waltrips trips to Victory Lane

Posted: Thursday, March 08, 2001

HAMPTON, Ga. -- The anguish of not winning on the NASCAR Winston Cup Series is nothing to Michael Wal trip compared to the emptiness felt by victory.

Twice in his career one all-star race and one regular season race the youngest of two racing brothers has enjoyed the limelight found only in the winner's circle.

Part of the celebration for each, however, has included a funeral.

It took him 10 full-time seasons on the senior circuit to win an unofficial race, and 15 years to win an official race. Two big days in 15 years. Two deaths. Whoever said life isn't always fair had to have Michael Waltrip in mind.

It took two weeks for Waltrip to talk about his season-opening victory at the Daytona 500. Two weeks to think about winning the biggest race on the schedule, two weeks to think about winning his first official race, two weeks to mourn the death of his car owner, Dale Earnhardt.

''I'm still excited that I won the race, but then there are a lot of questions in my mind because Dale was such a leader,'' Waltrip said. ''He'd get things done. He'd sit up there at his desk at the end of the building, and I was friends with him, so I didn't have any qualms at all about running up there and telling him something I felt or thought.''

Earnhardt died in the fourth turn of the final lap when his Chevrolet slammed head-on into the outside wall. He died instantly and less than 10 seconds later, Waltrip crossed the finish line.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., driving another car from the Dale Earn hardt Inc. racing stables, finished second. Under normal circumstances, a 1-2 finish is a banner day for any race team. But when the patriarch dies in the rear-view mirror, it erases all sense of accomplishment.

The winner sprayed his crew with champagne from Victory Lane, always looking through the crowd for his boss. Fellow racer Ken Schrader, who was first to run to arrive at the crash scene, pulled Waltrip aside and told him of the seriousness of the accident.

An official 462-race winless streak was gone, but so was his friend.

''I know for sure that the last thing Dale knew in this world is that Dale Jr. and I were going off and (one of us would) win the Daytona 500, and I hope that put a smile on his face,'' Waltrip said. ''It was Dale's turn to go, and the only way I could have such peace inside that I have is because I knew he knew that. People ask me all the time and say 'congratulations' and then 'sorry.' ''I'm sorry Dale's gone, but I'm so happy I won because that's why he hired me to win. And I did.''

For Waltrip, one of the sport's most personable players, exhilaration-mixed-with-grief, has be come an all-too-familiar part of winning.

His first big moment in the sport came during The Winston all-star race at Charlotte, N.C., on May 18, 1996. Although that race was limited to race winners of the previous season, Waltrip won a qualifying race among non-winners to gain an entry at the back of the field. He parlayed that last-place starting position into a victory worth $200,000. While it didn't count as an official win, it proved Waltrip was more than qualified to drive a Winston Cup Series stock car.

A couple hours later, however, Betty Wood, the wife of legendary car owner Leonard Wood, was killed in a head-on collision as she drove from the raceway to her home in Stuart, Va.

Added with Earnhardt's death, Victory Lane celebrations won't ever be the same for Waltrip. But the emptiness of not winning and the disappointment of letting his friend down hurts just as bad.

''I know in time things will work out, but that is a tremendous thing to lose,'' he said. ''I really respected and appreciated his leadership."

REACH Don Coble at doncoble@mindspring.com.



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