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HIS PERFECT STORM
Mark Bechtel
February 24, 2003
Michael Waltrip won his second Daytona 500 in three years with a little help from the skies and an Earnhardt (or two)
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February 24, 2003

His Perfect Storm

Michael Waltrip won his second Daytona 500 in three years with a little help from the skies and an Earnhardt (or two)

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In fact DEI has had fabricators and engine builders dedicated to plate racing since shortly after the 1998 Daytona 500, when Steve Park, then the team's sole driver, finished 41st. That performance prompted Earnhardt Sr. to take the unprecedented step of committing seven or eight shop workers almost exclusively to restrictor-plate cars. Heading into Sunday's race, DEI had won six of the last eight plate races, and Junior and Waltrip ran one-two most of the way in this year's race. (The RCR boys, meanwhile, enjoyed mixed success. Harvick and Gordon hovered around the top five for most of the race, but Green dropped from first to 20th in just five laps and wrecked on Lap 94.)

On Lap 87, however, Junior began dropping through the field when a failing alternator sapped the juice from his battery. Forced to make a lengthy pit stop to change batteries, he fell two laps down and ended up 36th. His misfortune was great news for the field. "When the 8 car dropped out," said second-place finisher Kurt Busch, "everybody's face lit up, everybody's eyes got big, everybody's right foot got heavy."

With Junior out of the picture, the other drivers' biggest concern became the weather. Heavy rains had been forecast for the afternoon, which prompted NASCAR to push up the start of the race by a half hour. A shower on Lap 63 led to a 68-minute delay, and after the cars got back onto the track, the looming gray clouds made it apparent that the field wouldn't stay dry much past Lap 100, when the race would become official. Anticipating the downpour, Jimmie Johnson's crew chief, Chad Knaus, made a gutsy call on Lap 97, when most of the leaders pitted during a caution. Knaus filled the tank only halfway, enabling Johnson, who had been running third, to get out of his stall in seven seconds and pass Waltrip and Tony Stewart for the lead.

Thanks to some cool driving and Knaus's pit ploy, Johnson—who took the pole as a rookie at the 2002 Daytona 500 but finished a lap down in 15th place—was a well-timed downpour from becoming the first modern-era driver to win the 500 in just his second start. "We were definitely praying for rain," Knaus said on pit road shortly before the race was called. "If the rain showed up five minutes sooner, we would have been leading this thing."

But the race went green again on Lap 106, and because of a NASCAR rule that allows cars a lap down to line up to the inside of lead-lap cars on restarts, Johnson had Junior to his left and Waltrip directly behind him. The DEI drafting partners were within reach of each other. "We knew we were done," said Knaus. "Those guys are the epitome of team. If one goes, the other one sticks with him." Earnhardt got a good jump as the green flag fell. Waltrip slid in behind him, then held on as Junior gave him an aerodynamic tow past Johnson. Safely in the lead, it was Waltrip's rum to look to the heavens and ask for rain.

This time, perhaps with a little help from someone in a higher grandstand, those prayers were answered.

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