Weathering the storm
Rain patterns play pivotal role in teams' race strategyPosted: Sunday February 16, 2003 12:04 PM
Updated: Sunday February 16, 2003 11:20 PM
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) -- The real race was against the radar.
Two months of preparations and nine days of working nonstop on the car were nearly for naught in the rain-shortened Daytona 500.
The only thing NASCAR's teams really needed Sunday was a weatherman.
"Early in the day we were racing against the rest of the field, but we knew the rain was coming," said Jimmy Fenning, crew chief for runner-up finisher Kurt Busch. "When we got 80 laps in, that's when we started working on the weather and it's all a guessing game from there."
Rain played a pivotal role in NASCAR's biggest race of the year, which Michael Waltrip won when the sanctioning body called it 91 laps from the finish.
Teams huddled most of the morning under the black hood covering the radar screen on the NASCAR truck, fretting over the green blobs of precipitation clearly headed toward Daytona.
NASCAR pushed the start of the race up almost 30 minutes in an effort to get as many laps in as possible. But with black clouds hovering, crew chiefs were forced to gamble on gas-only pit stops or taking tires in a chess match with the weather.
Waltrip, who took two tires on his final pit stop, raced for the lead by pushing past Jimmie Johnson on a restart on lap 106.
But caution came right back out when defending race winner Ward Burton wrecked, and before the field could go green again, heavy rain began to fall for the second time and NASCAR stopped the event.
Waltrip waited out a decision while sitting on the pit box with his wife, the cars covered in tarps sitting idle on pit road.
"If it's an official race and I won it, I don't even care if it rains," he said during the delay. "They have lights here, so I figure we are going to race some more, but I hope we don't."
They didn't, giving Waltrip his third win at Daytona in five races. He stood and high-fived his crew, then embraced wife, Buffy.
"It's just amazing that we put that car in the front and then it started raining," he said. "Thank God for the rain shower, I prayed to God for it to rain."
Calling the race was not a popular decision, especially for those denied a chance to run for the win.
"It's difficult to accept and to swallow," Busch said. "It's the biggest race we run and whether or not we went forward, it was the weather's decision. It's somewhat upsetting to see the finish come so soon."
Drivers called for the race to resume during the second delay, to no avail.
"They don't stop the Super Bowl or the World Series because of rain," Dale Jarrett said. "We might all look at this down the road, at finishing this race, because this is the biggest race and if it takes a day or two to finish it, we need to run 500 miles."
NASCAR vice president Jim Hunter said coming back on Monday to run the final 91 laps was never an option.
"We just don't think that's the thing to do," he said. "The points are the same for 109 laps or 200 laps. We simply ran out of options."
Johnson thought he had a shot at winning the race, taking gas only as crew chief Chad Knaus tried to guess when the rain might resume. They fueled the Chevrolet to finish at least another 25 laps and raced out of the pits and into the lead on lap 99.
He was holding off a charge from Waltrip, who had taken two tires during the round of pit stops, but Burton's wreck ruined Johnson's chances. Having to start on the outside alongside the lapped car of Dale Earnhardt Jr., Johnson knew he was finished.
Waltrip slid down the track behind his teammate and got a huge tow to race past Johnson.
"If Junior wasn't there, we'd still be leading," Johnson said. "I only had two options and once Michael got with Junior, they had a bunch of options.
"I'm not upset, of course I would have loved a chance to race for the win after the rain. But this pays the same amount of points as Rockingham does next week."