Waltrip's first victory a footnote to Earnhardt tragedy
Updated: Monday February 19, 2001 8:40 AM
By John Donovan, CNNSI.com
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Michael Waltrip's first Winston Cup victory was a long time coming. And he knew, even before he heard the tragic news, who he had to thank for it.
"The only person who won this race was Dale Earnhardt," Waltrip said. "He's more than my team owner. He's my friend.
"I'm just so thankful for everything he's done for me."
Waltrip's first win in 463 Winston Cup tries came Sunday at the sport's biggest showcase, the Daytona 500. But it also came at the sport's biggest price.
Earnhardt, one of the most popular drivers on the circuit and maybe its best driver ever, died from injuries he suffered in a last-lap accident, just seconds before his friend crossed the finish line.
He was 49 years old.
It was a shocking and tragic ending to an exciting -- and, even before Earnhardt's wreck, extremely scary -- 200-lap race at Daytona International Speedway. It also was a moment that was so sweet for Waltrip, before he was informed of Earnhardt's fate, and so sad afterward.
Waltrip drove a Chevrolet for Dale Earnhardt Inc. and was a teammate of Earnhardt's son, Dale Earnhardt Jr., who finished second. In victory lane afterward, before he realized the terrible extent of Earnhardt's injuries, Waltrip credited Earnhardt with saving his career.
"This is not anything personal to you all," he told the jubilant team members, friends and family who crowded into victory lane, "but the only person who won this race was Dale Earnhardt. I was just so looking forward to doing well for him and then he wasn't there ... and I didn't know that he was hurt."
Earnhardt was pronounced dead at a Daytona Beach hospital less than an hour later.
Because of his long winless streak, Waltrip was a surprise winner here. But he took over the lead with 17 laps left and, with help from the senior Earnhardt, held off a hard-charging Sterling Marlin and the younger Earnhardt to win the $1.3 million first prize.
"With ... Earnhardt blocking and Earnhardt Jr. blocking ... well, that's what you're supposed to do, and there just wasn't much I could do," Marlin said. "I couldn't get any help."
The race featured just what NASCAR wanted to see when officials implemented changes in the aerodynamic makeup of the cars. There were 50 lead changes -- there were only nine in last year's 500 -- among 14 drivers and close racing throughout. Cars passed and fell back seemingly at will, and the racing was often three-wide across the track.
Still, the race was surprisingly trouble-free until 25 laps remained. That's when Robby Gordon appeared to tag Ward Burton coming into the 3,000-foot backstretch. He spun into Tony Stewart and all hell broke loose.
Stewart's car became airborne, landed on the top of the car driven by Bobby Labonte, triggering an accident that involved 19 cars -- more than half the field that was running at the time.
Stewart was injured in the wreck and admitted, briefly, to the same area hospital where Earnhardt was later taken.
"This is the Daytona 500," said driver John Andretti, knocked out of the race in the wreck. "We were getting close to the end of it, and everyone wants to win."
There were concerns before the race that, with such close racing, an accident was inevitable.
"Accidents are inevitable," Andretti said, "when drivers are reaching to their limits."
Said Dale Jarrett: "I'm sorry, but that's not racing. It may be a great show out there [in the grandstand], but from a driver's perspective, that's not it."
After a red-flag delay, racing resumed and Waltrip took over the lead shortly after. Thanks to Earnhardt and his son, blocking for their teammate and friend, Waltrip was hardly threatened the rest of the way.
After a week filled with concerns that the new Dodge entries would run away with the race, two Chevrolets showed the way. The top 10 featured three Chevys, three Dodges and four Fords.
None of that, though, will be remembered. Nor will the big 19-car wreck, or the close racing or even Waltrip's first, badly deserved win.
The 2001 Daytona 500, the Super Bowl of stock-car racing, will go down, simply, as maybe the most tragic race in a sport littered with tragedies.