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Waltrip masters Daytona 500 again
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- 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 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 2 1/2-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, 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.
Waltrip then became the man to beat. He wound up leading three times for a total of 68 laps, including the final four.
Busch said he considered himself lucky to do so well, especially with Earnhardt Jr. running so strong in the No. 8 car.
"When the 8 car dropped out, everybody's eyes lit up, everybody's foot got heavy," Busch said. "It was a whole new race."
Officials moved up the start of the race about 20 minutes to try to get it in before the rain.
Pole-winner Jeff Green was shuffled back to ninth on the first lap, and Waltrip moved from fourth to first. Earnhardt Jr. fell to fourth, but worked his way back to second on lap five.
That's the way it remained until the first round of pit stops.
Stewart led for a while, but there were more pit stops after Terry Labonte was bumped from behind by Elliott Sadler and slid through the backstretch grass, bringing out the first caution.
Earnhardt made a gas-only stop and came out in front, with Waltrip next. They appeared content to run that way until Sadler broke up the teamwork by passing Waltrip on lap 55.
Two laps later, a big crash brought out the second yellow flag.
With most of the field racing in a two- and three-wide pack, Burton bumped Ken Schrader from behind coming off turn four. That turned Schrader's car into Ryan Newman, last year's top rookie. Both slammed off the wall and slid across traffic into the grass, where Newman took a wild ride.
"It was a pretty hard hit and when I saw the grass, I figured I was in more trouble than hitting the wall," Newman said.
He was right.
The rear end of his No. 12 Ford sailed high in the air as the car pirouetted on its left front. With the right rear wheel assembly torn off, the car came down and dug into the grass, then started flipping. It rolled once to the left and then three more full turns to the right, finally winding up on its roof, a battered mess. It took several minutes to get Newman out of the car.
Bobby Labonte, who managed to avoid the accident in front of him, drove down the pit lane and was almost out of harm's way when Schrader's car suddenly slid into his path. The two cars wound up pinned against the pit wall.
As the debris was being cleaned up and the cars hauled away, it began to rain. Soon after, NASCAR halted the race for the first time.
Rusty Wallace sent some fans home unhappy as well as wet: One of his sponsors had promised free beer to every adult ticket-holder at Daytona if he won. But Wallace started near the back of the field, never was in contention and wound up 25th.
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.