Michael Waltrip wins Trucks race
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Michael Waltrip spent all day exchanging stories about Dale Earnhardt. Some brought a smile to his face. Others brought tears to his eyes.
Waltrip capped the 10-year anniversary of Earnhardt's death with even more mixed emotions.
Waltrip won the season-opening Trucks Series race at Daytona International Speedway on Friday, setting off more highs and lows in Victory Lane.
"This day, it was hard," Waltrip said. "I've been emotional all day long. It's been really emotional. ... I just was determined to win the race for him.
"So I'm drained. I'm thankful. I didn't come here to celebrate winning the 2001 Daytona 500. I came here to celebrate Dale's life and honor him."
Waltrip passed Elliott Sadler in the final hundred yards of the race. Waltrip choked up talking about what the win meant, especially since it came a decade to the day after his first victory at Daytona.
Waltrip was driving for Dale Earnhardt Inc. back then, and his frivolity turned to fright on Feb. 18, 2001, when word spread that his close friend and car owner was badly injured on the final lap of the Daytona 500. Earnhardt was pronounced dead a short time later, and Waltrip never got to celebrate what should have been the biggest victory of his life.
"Today, obviously with it being the 10th anniversary of that terrible day, I wanted to be able to tell people that I was here in honor of Dale," he said. "Someone said, 'I can't believe it's been 10 years.' I said, 'Well, I can. I live it every day."
Friday night's win also made Waltrip the 22nd driver to win in each of NASCAR's top three series.
This one was special.
Sadler, Waltrip, Timothy Peters, Miguel Paludo and Clay Rogers were the only ones who avoided major damage in two wild, multi-truck wrecks late. Sadler and Waltrip pulled away from the field after the green flag dropped on a two-lap sprint to the checkered flag.
Waltrip pushed Sadler most of the way, then veered outside coming out of the final turn and edged Sadler by a few feet at the line.
"If anybody deserves a win in today's race, it's probably Michael Waltrip," Sadler said.
The final pileup seemingly started when Aric Almirola ran into the back of Brad Sweet with four laps remaining, setting off a chain reaction that collected many of the night's fastest trucks. Officials stopped the race for 10 minutes to clean up debris from the 10-truck crash near the start-finish line.
Most of the trucks remaining had significant damage.
Not Sadler and Waltrip, two longtime Sprint Cup drivers who have more success at restrictor-plate races than anywhere else.
Waltrip talked openly with broadcasters, including his brother, Darrell, about his strategy of staying behind Sadler until the final turn and then racing him to the finish line.
It worked to perfection.
"He made a great move at the end," Sadler said. "It does ease the pain a little bit."
Waltrip took a celebratory lap before driving his No. 15 Toyota to Victory Lane. He climbed out of his car, embraced his daughter and then tried to explain what winning on the Earnhardt anniversary. It was a struggle.
"It's been a long day," he said.
Waltrip's truck had a broken rear spoiler on the final lap. It probably helped him slice through the air at the superspeedway, but no one credited it for his victory.
NASCAR inspected the broken part and said it appeared to be a failure, but also planned to evaluate it further Saturday.
"If it had fallen off before the checkered, they would have black flagged me," Waltrip said. "I'm just so thankful it hung on 'til the checkered 'cause I didn't even know it was an issue. I didn't even see it 'til after the race."
Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press