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Waltrip Is Winner With a Little Help

He takes advantage of restart after yellow flag by slingshotting past Johnson to win rain-shortened Daytona 500.

February 17, 2003|Shav Glick | Times Staff Writer

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — A car two laps down won the 45th Daytona 500 Sunday.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., two laps back after having to stop for a faulty battery, wasn't the official winner, but his red Chevrolet decided the result when he towed teammate Michael Waltrip past Jimmie Johnson a few minutes before rain ended the Great American Race after only 109 laps.

Johnson was leading, Waltrip was second, right behind him, for a restart after a caution flag. But by NASCAR rules, Earnhardt was allowed to line up alongside Johnson, with Christian Fittipaldi alongside Waltrip. Fittipaldi started slow when the green flag came out, so Waltrip ducked in behind Earnhardt and took a tow that shot him past Johnson and to victory when rains halted the race four laps later.

"When we got the one to go signal, I looked in the mirror and I saw the 15 [Waltrip] and the 8 [Earnhardt], hands out the window, giving each other hand signals and pointing thumbs up, I knew I was in trouble then," said a disappointed Johnson, who wound up third.

Kurt Busch, who tucked in behind Waltrip, rode his tow into second place.

Johnson, a second-year driver from El Cajon who was hoping to become the first Southern California driver to win stock car racing's premier event, was philosophical in his disappointment.

"The older I get and the more experience I go through, nothing's fair," the 27-year-old former off-road racer said. "It's just how it is. I don't have any feelings on it one way or not, if it's fair or not. It's just racing, what you have to deal with on a restrictor plate race."

The race became official once it passed 100 laps, but NASCAR officials waited more than an hour before declaring it over.

Waltrip was sitting with his wife Buffy when the announcement came over the public-address system. When he heard it, he jumped into the air and thrust his arms up in a victory salute.

"I was praying for it to keep raining," he said. "It was pretty cool, sitting there knowing I was the winner if it didn't quit. I was just so blessed that I was in the right place at the right time."

It was the second Daytona 500 win for the 39-year-old from Owensboro, Ky., but it was more enjoyable than his first, in 2001. That was the race in which Dale Earnhardt, his car owner and close friend, was killed in the fourth turn at almost the same instant that Waltrip was taking the checkered flag.

Despite Johnson's comments about the two Dale Earnhardt Inc. drivers giving hand signals, Waltrip says there was no collusion between them.

"I knew that Dale Jr. wanted his lap back and would be ready when the green flag came out," he said. "I knew Christian hadn't raced much here and might not be."

Which is exactly what happened. Earnhardt took off, Fittipaldi hesitated and Waltrip tucked in behind Earnhardt. Johnson, with no one behind him pushing, was left out in the cold.

"I had a couple of options, either jump the start and get ahead of Junior or try to box Michael in so Junior and the 15 couldn't get hooked up," said Johnson. "The 33 [Fittipaldi] had a terrible start and allowed Michael to drop down. When that happened, everything I could do at that point was over and done with."

The race was the shortest in Daytona's 45-year history and was the first to be stopped by rain since Richard Petty won the second of his seven wins in 1966.

Busch, who won three of the last five Winston Cup races last year, was disappointed the race was stopped. Especially after coming from 36th to finish second.

"It's difficult to accept and to swallow," said the Las Vegas driver of one of Jack Roush's Fords. "It was a bittersweet finish. Just unsettling to see such a great race come to an end so soon."

Earnhardt had led 22 laps, but experienced problems in restarting after the first rain delay and had to be pushed by a tow truck. At the time he said he neglected to push the power button, but not long afterward he slowed perceptibly and came into the pits for a new battery.

This dropped him two laps behind, but he got one lap back and was racing as fast as anyone when the race ended. He finished 36th, a shock after he had dominated SpeedWeeks with wins in the Budweiser Shootout, Twin 125 qualifying race and the Busch Grand National.

"I'm telling you, even when I was a couple of laps down, I could go right to the front," he said. "My car was really, really good."

Kevin Harvick had to start from the rear after his crew made a pre-race engine change, but he finished fourth. He was not too happy with Busch, with whom he has tangled in the past.

"We got back through the pack and then Kurt Busch slid through the pits again," Harvick said. "He came in there hot. I don't know what was happening but he was sitting in my pit and I was sitting on pit road waiting to get in. That's about the third time he's done that.... They just need to put a restrictor plate on his foot because obviously his foot doesn't register with his brain."

Waltrip has won only three races in 535 Winston Cup starts, and all three have been at Daytona International Raceway -- two 500s and last year's Pepsi 400.

Before the rain doused the speedway, fans were treated to some frightening three-abreast racing through the 36-degree banking -- four stories high.

"It was pretty hairy out there so we're glad the car came home in one piece," said Robby Gordon, who finished sixth.

There were five caution flags for 23 laps, three of them for accidents.

The most serious saw Ryan Newman rolling down the tri-oval after being buffeted about as the result of three-wide racing through the fourth turn. No one was injured in any of the accidents.

Waltrip's average speed for the 2 hour 2 minute 8 second race was 133.870 mph.

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