Feb. 27, 2001
Waltrip's win overshadowed, and that's too bad
By Holly Cain, SportsLine.com Sports Writer
Lost in all the incredible sadness of the past two weeks is a story of triumph that under any other circumstance would have been one of the best at the Daytona 500.
On the final lap of the race on Feb. 18, the racing world lost its greatest stock car driver in Dale Earnhardt. But it also witnessed the glorious reward of perseverance when Michael Waltrip claimed victory and ended the sport's longest winless streak at 462 races. Simultaneously, there was everything so bad about racing and everything so good.
As Waltrip, 37, celebrated his first NASCAR Winston Cup points-paying win in the Daytona International Speedway victory circle, his car owner and seven-time series champ Earnhardt was being transported to a hospital. The injuries Earnhardt sustained in a crash a quarter mile short of the finish line proved fatal.
"When I got to Victory Lane, I just couldn't wait until I felt that big grab on the back of my neck and I was going to turn around and see Dale grinning," Waltrip said, his voice cracking with emotion. "I kept waiting and I kept waiting and I kept waiting. ... and it never came."
It goes without saying the loss of Earnhardt in NASCAR's premier event is perhaps the most tragic blow this sport has ever taken. However, you can't help but feel for Waltrip, too. Understandably, the 2001 Daytona 500 will always be remembered for the death of Earnhardt, not the day Michael Waltrip finally scored his maiden win.
After 17 grueling seasons, Waltrip drives to his first win and even then he can't truly celebrate. Not that he wanted to.
"I'm just so thankful for everything Dale's done for me and now we do this (win the Daytona 500) and this is how it all turns out," Waltrip said in the postrace news conference while still unaware of his friend's fate. "It doesn't all seem exactly right at this moment for me."
Now, nearly two weeks later -- in this period of healing -- it can't hurt to pause and recognize Waltrip's achievement. It's a real reason to smile in this time of sorrow.
And it's also a tribute to Earnhardt, who finally gave Waltrip a fighting chance to succeed. The two men have long been close friends. And when Earnhardt decided to expand his Winston Cup team to three cars for 2001, he immediately tabbed Waltrip.
Some might have questioned why the man known for winning would hire the man known for not winning?
But the latter isn't an accurate characterization of Waltrip. He didn't win in Winston Cup but he's hardly a loser.
Although he has only 18 top-five Winston Cup showings, he won one of the toughest races on the schedule, NASCAR's exhibition all-star event, The Winston, in 1996. And he has eight wins and 11 poles positions in the highly competitive Busch Grand National series.
Over the years, Waltrip typically ran up front -- often led races -- but succumbed to a mechanical problem or just plain bad luck. Too often he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. And the teams he has driven for haven't won in his absence either.
Waltrip was always cordial to reporters, good-naturedly answering the inevitable questions about his "0-fer" tag. For all his futility, Waltrip has always remained confident in his abilities and so apparently was Earnhardt. And there isn't a greater seal of approval.
"What people that didn't know me thought or said, honestly didn't matter," Waltrip said. "The only thing I wish in my career is that along the way I would have been good enough to have made a difference somewhere where I was at.
"I think that's why you see such gracious winners in this sport, guys like Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon. These guys come in and I know, that they know, they're just fortunate to sit in the type of equipment they get to sit in. When I got this ride, the pressure's off. I know we can perform. And we did."
Boy did he. Ultimately Waltrip took the Daytona 500 lead for good by passing the track's all-time winningest driver, his boss Earnhardt. Then for the next 17 dicey laps Waltrip had to hold off his teammate, Earnhardt's son Dale Jr., for the win.
It marked only the ninth time in the race's 43-year history a winner started from farther back than 10th place. Since 1978, only Bobby Allison (33rd) has come from farther back than Waltrip (19th) to win the Daytona 500.
And that was just the final leg of NASCAR's longest journey to first-time victory.
"Is 1-for-463 really that much better than 0-for-462?" Waltrip asked after the race. "Maybe not, but I won the Daytona 500."
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