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Waltrip restricted by Daytona

By JOANNE KORTH, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 18, 2003

DAYTONA BEACH -- Michael Waltrip won the Daytona 500 for the second time Sunday, becoming the eighth man in NASCAR history with multiple victories in the sport's biggest race.

Big whoop.

Let's see him win at Rockingham.

That's the inane rub to Waltrip's career: Nothing he does, no matter how grand, is quite good enough. Nothing seems to make this man legitimate behind the wheel of a stock car.

Waltrip has three career victories, all at Daytona International Speedway. He won the 2001 Daytona 500 on the day his friend and car owner, Dale Earnhardt, was killed in a last-lap crash. He won the Pepsi 400 in July, and Sunday's rain-shortened 500. That's right, he's one-dimensional.

Just a restrictor-plate racer, and how hard is that?

"I feel like I am wrongly called only able to race at plate races," Waltrip said. "I don't think that's fair. It will be just a matter of time before I prove that's not valid."

It's a continuing theme.

In 1996, Waltrip won The Winston all-star race under the lights at Lowe's Motor Speedway. The event is for race winners, so Waltrip did it the hard way, by winning the "hooligan" qualifying race and then besting the sport's best in the finale.

But The Winston is not a points race. People said it didn't count.

"I don't worry much about it," Waltrip said. "People have got to talk. I mean, The Winston is one of the biggest nights of the year. It's huge. The first thing someone said was, 'This isn't a points race.' When Jeff Gordon wins it, ask him if he gives a c--- whether it's a points race or not. It's The Winston."

Still, Waltrip's record officially stood at 0-for-462 until he pulled into Victory Lane at Daytona two years ago. Now that he has done it twice more, his record remains incomplete.

It's not him, skeptics argue, it's the car. The No. 15 Chevrolet is prepared by Dale Earnhardt Inc., which has captured seven of the past nine races at Daytona and Talladega, tracks where restrictor plates limit speeds by reducing airflow into the carburetor.

Everyone claims plate racing takes the driver out of the equation. Just put the pedal to the floor all the way around and hang on tight. It takes teammates, not talent, to win a plate race.

Yet, when teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. won three in a row at Talladega, he was said to pick up where his father left off as the sport's new restrictor-plate master. Of Junior's seven career victories, four are in plate races, but no one complains.

So, despite adding a second Daytona 500 trophy to his collection, Waltrip will continue to fight perception until he wins at one of the routine stops on the Winston Cup circuit.

"I think we will fare much better this year at other tracks," Waltrip said. "We're prepared to do so. But Daytona ain't a bad place to win until you can get everything else worked out."

BAD OMEN: The winner of the Daytona 500 has gone on to win the Winston Cup championship in the same season just once since 1979, when Jeff Gordon did it in 1997. Three others who won both in the same year are Lee Petty (1959), Richard Petty (1964, '71, '74 and '79) and Cale Yarborough (1977).

BONUS BABIES: When it comes to the championship, it's never too early to start thinking about bonus points. These contenders picked up five extra points for leading at least one lap: Earnhardt Jr., Johnson, Matt Kenseth and defending champion Tony Stewart.

RATINGS DROP: Viewership of the rain-shortened 500 declined about 10 percent from last year's record.

Fox's telecast drew a 9.8 rating Sunday compared with NBC's 10.9 rating in 2002.

The Fox telecast was outpacing last year's ratings early in the race. But two rain delays totaling more than two hours made it difficult to hold the audience.

Preliminary figures showed about 29.4-million viewers tuned in to some part of the race. That was the fifth-largest TV audience in the race's history.

"Given the fact that we had just over two hours of live racing and never got the huge bump that is normal at the end of an uninterrupted race, to have this be among the most-watched Daytona 500s ever is remarkable, " Fox Sports president Ed Goren said.

Each rating point represents about 1.06-million U.S. television households.

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