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Thanks to the rain, Waltrip reigns



Published: Mon, February 17, 2003 @ 12:00 a.m.



DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) -- Michael Waltrip hoisted the Daytona 500 trophy above his head in a crowded garage surrounded by family, friends, fans and foul weather.

Then he took off running through the rain.

"I don't care if it's raining -- we're going to Victory Lane!" he yelled, not bothering to see if anyone was following.

For a driver with as few victories as Waltrip, nothing was going to stop him from making this a celebration to remember.

As black clouds closed in, Waltrip was pulled to the front of the pack by his teammate Sunday to take over the lead in the Daytona 500. When the sky opened up, he retreated under an umbrella with his wife, the two of them wishing the rain would never stop.

It didn't, and Waltrip was declared the winner of the rain-shortened race. In 535 career starts, Waltrip has three wins -- all at Daytona and two in NASCAR's biggest race of the season.

Enjoyed it this time

Unlike the first win, when friend and boss Dale Earnhardt was killed in a wreck on the last lap, Waltrip was able to enjoy this one.

"I'm at peace with what occurred that day," he said. "But I will never close that chapter. I never want to close a chapter on any part of my life, especially not when it comes to losing my friend like that."

With weather the wild card of this race, Waltrip and his crew had to play a guessing game to win.

Jimmie Johnson got gas only and Waltrip took two tires on what teams expected would be the final pit stop before the rain.

Foul weather had already pushed the start of the event up almost 30 minutes and caused an earlier stoppage of more than an hour, and no one expected the race to be run in its entirety.

Johnson had the lead, Waltrip was in second and time was running out.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., the favorite to win here only to have his chances ruined by a bad alternator and dead battery, helped his friend and teammate take the lead on the last green-flag lap.

Earnhardt, running a lap down, pulled Waltrip past Johnson for the lead.

Caution came out moments later when defending race winner Ward Burton hit the wall, rain began to fall, and the race never resumed, ending 91 laps short of the finish.

Busch finishes second

"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."

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.

"Of course I would have loved to race until the end, I felt we had a shot to win the race," Johnson said. "But I'm not disappointed. We never thought we were running an entire race. I just wish I was leading when the rain came."

Tribute to Earnhardt

Waltrip's first Winston Cup victory came in the 2001 Daytona 500, in his first race with Dale Earnhardt Inc. After his latest victory, Waltrip paid tribute to the seven-time Winston Cup champion and Daytona's winningest driver with 34 victories, 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."

This was the third time in the race's 45 editions that the Daytona 500 was shortened by rain. Fred Lorenzen ran 133 laps in winning in 1965, and Richard Petty took the 1966 race in 198 laps.

Dominant at Daytona

Waltrip has practically owned Daytona's famed 21/2-mile 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 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.

Waltrip led three times for a total of 68 laps, including the final four.

Copyright 2003 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.




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