Waltrip a winner at Daytona -- and happy this time

Posted: Sunday, July 07, 2002

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Michael Waltrip won. Dale Earnhardt Jr., went for broke. And the Intimidator would have loved the whole show.

At the track the late Dale Earnhardt treasured the most, it was his good friend, Waltrip, holding off a late challenge from his son, Earnhardt Jr., to win the Pepsi 400 on Saturday night.

Waltrip earned his second career victory and the first he could really savor. His only other win came last February, in the Daytona 500. Back then, he crossed the finish line a split second after Earnhardt hit the wall in Turn 4 and died.

Thus added yet another poignant chapter to the Earnhardt family saga at the track. Waltrip was Earnhardt's good friend and employee -- he was like another son to the Intimidator -- and he always figured his boss would be there for his biggest successes.

Time has healed some of that hurt, and Waltrip's second victory -- Rusty Wallace finished second in a race that ended under caution -- was as fitting a tribute to The Man in Black as anyone could imagine.

So was the way Earnhardt Jr., went down fighting.

Trailing his friend and Dale Earnhardt Inc., teammate through most of the end of the race, Junior had to decide whether to hang back and protect Waltrip's lead or go for the victory.

He went for it, got hung out to dry, and wound up finishing sixth.

''It was an awesome move,'' Wallace said. ''His pop would have tried it the way he tried it.''

But this was no easy decision.

After all, it was Waltrip who protected Junior last July in Earnhardt Jr's., stirring victory in the first race back at this track since his dad's death. And it was the Intimidator himself who many people felt hung back in his final moments to protect Waltrip's first win. Junior had a long debate with his crew chief -- team or self, team or self -- and ultimately decided he had to go to the win to be fair to his crew.

''You know, I was sitting there trying to decide what to do and it made me think of what my father would have done in that situation,'' Earnhardt said. ''It's one of the times where it worked it for me because Daddy would have went for the win every time, no matter what, and that's how I made up my mind.''

Waltrip said he was glad Earnhardt went for the victory instead of protecting him.

''I'm happy he did that, because nobody can say we rode around here in formation,'' he said. ''I had the fastest car.''

Moments after Earnhardt's failed attempt, Geoffrey Bodine and Ryan Newman wrecked and brought out the yellow flag.

The final 2 1/2 laps were run under yellow. Thousands of fans protested, throwing reams of paper onto the backstretch, possibly believing NASCAR should have stopped the race to allow it to finish under green.

''There was no way we could have finished the race anyway,'' Wallace insisted. ''There were so many beer cans on the track.''

But that disruption didn't ruin Waltrip's celebration.

Just like Earnhardt did when he finally broke through at the Daytona 500 in 1998 -- and like Junior did last year in his emotional victory here -- Waltrip celebrated by spinning donuts in the infield. Then he pulled into Victory Lane for a much more jubilant celebration than his last trip there.

Indeed, this is the way the Intimidator always wanted it to be at Daytona, the site of many of his best moments. He won 34 times here -- including twice in the Pepsi 400 -- and when he founded DEI, he made dominance at Daytona a priority.

Nobody does it better at Daytona -- or Talladega, the other track where restrictor plates are put on the carburetors to limit speeds -- than Earnhardt and his proteges.

Counting Junior's stirring victory here last year, in the first race at Daytona since his dad's death, DEI cars have won five of the last seven races on restrictor-plate tracks.

Wallace enjoyed his best finish ever at Daytona. Winston Cup points leader Sterling Marlin raced near the front all day and finished third. But neither driver was trying to fool anyone -- nobody is very close to the DEI cars in restrictor-plate races.

''All I know is our guys are doing all they can,'' Marlin said. ''It goes in cycles.''

''We didn't have anything for Junior or Waltrip,'' Wallace said. ''They were the class of the field.''

Jimmy Spencer finished fourth and Mark Martin was fifth. Polesitter Kevin Harvick suffered damage to the right front of his car and finished 11th.

The finish under yellow was fitting for a race that was run in fits and starts.

The worst wreck of the night came with 16 laps left. It sent flames shooting out of Brett Bodine's car and sent many competitive cars, including Dale Jarrett, out of the race.

This start of the race was downright strange.

Three yellow flags came out over the first 17 laps -- the first on lap 2 when Elliott Sadler spun out Tony Stewart on the backstretch, forcing Stewart's crew to take the car into Victory Lane for an extended attempt to repair the damaged Pontiac.

Johnny Benson spun out on the eighth lap and broke two ribs.

On the 17th lap, Steve Park got underneath Mike Wallace and spun him out. All the cars pitted and Todd Bodine was involved in a three-car accident on pit road that sent his tire changer, Bill Curwood, to the infield care center with injuries to his right leg.

Kurt Busch was also involved in that accident. He was penalized twice -- once for illegal passing under caution, then again for cussing out NASCAR officials over the radio. The infractions cost him four laps.

Around the same time, Jeff Gordon punctured his left rear tire and lost track position. The defending Winston Cup champ spent the rest of the race trying to regain the lap he lost when he pitted, and still remains in search of his first victory of the season.

Some guessed the rough start came because the drivers didn't get any chance to draft in practice, which was rained out all week. The lack of practice forced teams to turn to their notes from the Daytona 500 in February as their only reference point for how things would go on NASCAR's most famous track.

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