The weather wreaked havoc on the Daytona 500 today as rain drenched stock-car racing's biggest event, reducing it to a series of sprints with all the fits and starts of a sputtering engine.
After being red-flagged twice because of driving showers, the race was officially declared complete after 272.5 miles had been run -- a call that anointed Michael Waltrip the winner.
Waltrip, the race's 2001 champion, had one of the strongest cars in the field and led 68 of the 109 laps run. But he had teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. to thank for the critical pass that helped him take the lead -- and the $1.4 million payday -- just four laps before the race was halted a final time.
Kurt Busch finished second in a Ford, followed by Jimmy Johnson (Chevy), Kevin Harvick (Chevy) and Mark Martin (Ford).
"People just don't know what Daytona means," an emotional Waltrip said after claiming the third victory of his 18-year Winston Cup career -- all of them coming on this 2.5-mile superspeedway. "You can't know unless you've lived your life pursuing dreams that come true here."
Earnhardt, who had swept all three tune-up races leading to today's 500-miler, fell from contention with an electrical problem. He lost two laps in the pits while his battery was replaced but returned to the track with enough horsepower to give Waltrip the crucial aerodynamic tug around Johnson for the lead.
Their teamwork -- unusual in the highly competitive arena of auto racing -- was the key to the drivers' 1-2 finish in the 2001 Daytona 500, the race in which Dale Earnhardt was killed in a last-lap crash.
And the late champion, who owned Waltrip's race-winning car (as well as that of Earnhardt Jr.), was in Waltrip's thoughts as he exulted in his second Daytona 500 victory.
"If you're going to die, when it's time to die, you need to go somewhere where you feel so at ease and at peace. And that describes Dale at Daytona," said Waltrip, 39. "I'm just thankful for the opportunity he gave me."
Today's race was marred by a collision that looked far more horrific than the one that killed Earnhardt. But second-year driver Ryan Newman suffered only bruises to body and ego after his Ford barrel-rolled three-and-a-half times across the frontstretch grass and slammed to a halt on its flattened hood.
The accident was triggered when defending Daytona 500 champion Ward Burton blew a tire and rear-ended Ken Schrader in Turn 4. Schrader banged into Newman, whose Ford smacked the front-stretch wall and spun onto the grass, where its rear end kicked up in the air and slammed to earth with a violent thud. Springs and tires went flying as the car was shredded to pieces.
The sight of Newman's pancaked Ford on its roof brought a chilling silence to the capacity crowd of 200,000, coming to rest just few hundred yards from the spot where Earnhardt lost his life almost two years ago to the day.
Newman opened his eyes to find himself wedged in his car with a two-foot chunk of sod in his lap. "My feelings are hurt, and I'll be sore tomorrow," Newman said after being released from the infield care center. "I'm a little sore right now. But the good thing is, I'm all in one piece."
The collision also ended the day for Bobby Labonte, whose Joe Gibbs-owned Chevy was tagged by Schrader as he spun out of control onto pit lane. Labonte finished 41st; Schrader, 42nd; and Newman, 43rd.
Until the rain started falling, the 45th Daytona 500 looked as if it would be a two-man race, with Waltrip and Earnhardt Jr. the drivers to beat in their high-powered Chevrolets.
Waltrip seized the lead from pole-sitter Jeff Green on the first lap, and Earnhardt fell in behind, protecting his flank. Only pit stops shuffled the running order among the leaders early on, while drivers diced two- and three-wide for position farther back.
Earnhardt appeared poised to complete his longed-for sweep of the week's races when the race was red-flagged for rain on Lap 63, having taken the lead during a pit stop. Crew members covered the cars and draped the pit areas with heavy tarps, while drivers climbed out to stretch their legs and chat with reporters.
Earnhardt's battery started balking shortly after the race was restarted, and he had no choice but to duck into the pits for a replacement.
The race had a different complexion than its previous runnings because the cars were carrying smaller fuel tanks, as mandated by a new NASCAR rule. The idea was to force cars to pit for gas more often, thus stretching out the densely packed fields and reducing the likelihood of multi-car pileups.
It worked, in a sense. But in the process, it put tremendous emphasis on pit stops, arguably at the expense of the quality of racing. Of the 11 lead changes during the race, all but one occurred in the pits or on restarts.
Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis was on hand for his first Daytona 500 to watch Green, the America Online-sponsored driver, start the race from the pole. But Green crashed out on Lap 95.
Johnson seized the lead on the pit stop that followed by taking only a splash of gas, gambling that the rain would return before his tank ran dry.
By the time the skies opened, however, Waltrip had motored past, dropping behind the lapped car of Earnhardt on the final restart to reclaim the lead.
After a 65-minute rain delay, the race was declared over, and Waltrip raced onto the infield grass with his arms held high.
Later, after he had posed for pictures in Victory Lane, Waltrip scoffed when asked if he felt his achievement had been diminished by the fact that the race was shortened by rain.
"It's ruining me," Waltrip deadpanned. "And you know what I heard? They're going to pay me the whole amount! Isn't that crazy? This is the Daytona 500, and I'm just honored to be the champion of it. Again!"