By KEVIN KELLY
© St. Petersburg Times,
published July 5, 2001
It took 462 races before Michael Waltrip's chance to celebrate a Winston Cup victory arrived on Feb. 18.
But the thrill of winning the Daytona 500 -- NASCAR's biggest race of the season -- with brother Darrell calling the race from the Fox broadcast booth was forever tarnished by the fatal last-lap crash involving his team owner, Dale Earnhardt.
"I choose to say not a whole lot about it because it pains me still," Waltrip said. "But I'm thankful that I won. They were going to have that race, they were going to have that winner, and thankfully it was me."
The Feb. 18 victory has been the sole highlight in a season of extremes for the 38-year-old hired to drive the No. 15 Chevrolet for Dale Earnhardt Inc. this season.
Waltrip hasn't finished in the top 10 since, is on his second crew chief this season and ranks 28th in the points standings entering the Pepsi 400 on Saturday at Daytona.
Qualifying for all 43 starting positions is today.
"It's been disappointing, very disappointing to be (so low) in points after winning in Daytona," Waltrip said. "But I'm more focused in what we're doing today over what we did over the last few months."
Scott Eggleston was fired as crew chief after the MBNA Platinum 400 on June 3 at Dover Downs and replaced with DEI director of motorsports Steve Hmiel.
"There was no intercommunication between this team and the other two teams," Hmiel said. "People didn't know what their goals were. They didn't know the exact jobs they were supposed to perform day to day. People need to know what they were expected to do.
"They need to know if they're doing a good job and they need to know if they need to step it up a level."
While the Pepsi 400 marks the halfway point in the Winston Cup season, Waltrip views it as another chance to start anew.
"Our belief is that things have turned around," Waltrip said. "We've had some good runs lately. I'm happy where we are today and I'm really fired up about the rest of the season."
NEMECHEK RETURNS: Out of action since he was injured in a May practice crash at Dover Downs, Joe Nemechek returns this weekend after a six-race absence.
The Lakeland native has watched impatiently as three drivers have substituted in the No. 33 Chevrolet while he recovered from a broken right shoulder blade, broken right elbow and a small lung bruise.
"I've never been through anything like this," Nemechek said. "It hurt a lot at times, but watching that car going around the racetrack without me driving, it hurt a whole lot, too."
The 37-year-old has never finished in the top 10 in 14 races at Daytona, a mark he'd like to improve upon this weekend.
"I'm right on schedule to 100 percent again, and I feel like I'm fairly close to that now," Nemechek said. "My mind is set on Daytona and nowhere else."
MEMORY LANE: It didn't matter to John Andretti that the 1997 Pepsi 400 might end under caution.
"A win is a win is a win," Andretti said. "It just doesn't matter."
What did matter, however, is that he beat Terry Labonte to the finish line by .029 seconds after a restart for his first career Winston Cup victory and that Earnhardt was in his rearview mirror.
"If you could beat Dale at Daytona, you know that you had beaten the best in the business," Andretti said. "When he was at his best was at a place like Daytona."
ODDS AND ENDS: Bill Elliott leads all active drivers with five poles at Daytona. Sterling Marlin and Ken Schrader each have three. ... Twenty-one drivers have won restrictor-plate races since NASCAR began mandating their use in 1988 at Daytona and Talladega Superspeedway. Earnhardt had 11 victories, followed by Jeff Gordon (six) and Dale Jarrett and Marlin with five each. ... Eight drivers have competed in all 54 restrictor-plate races: Elliott, Terry Labonte, Marlin, Mark Martin, Ricky Rudd, Schrader, Rusty Wallace and Waltrip.
WHAT: Pepsi 400.
WHEN/TV/WHERE: Today, qualifying (8 p.m., TNT); Saturday, race (8 p.m., Ch. 8); Daytona Beach.
2000 WINNER: Jeff Burton.
FAST FACTS: This is the first Winston Cup race at Daytona since Feb. 18, when seven-time series champion Dale Earnhardt was killed on the last lap of the season-opening Daytona 500. NBC, a partner with Fox and Turner Sports in NASCAR's new Winston Cup TV contract, televises the first of its 13 races. Burton's victory last year led a top-five sweep by Fords.
POINTS STANDINGS: 1. Jeff Gordon, 2,351; 2. Dale Jarrett, 2,225; 3. Ricky Rudd, 2,206; 4. Tony Stewart, 2,117; 5. Sterling Marlin, 2,108; 6. Rusty Wallace, 2,038; 7. Johnny Benson, 1,922; 8. Bobby Labonte, 1,906; 9. Kevin Harvick, 1,894; 10. Steve Park, 1,858.
WHAT: GNC Live Well 200.
WHEN/TV/WHERE: Saturday, qualifying, noon; Sunday, race (1 p.m., TNT); Watkins Glen, N.Y.
2000 WINNER: Ron Fellows.
FAST FACTS: Fellows joined Winston Cup star Terry Labonte as a multiple Busch series winner in Watkins Glen. Labonte won in 1991 and from 1994-96. Fellows also won the event in 1998. Labonte and Fellows are the only drivers to win the race from the pole. Chevrolets have won eight of 10 races in Watkins Glen.
POINTS STANDINGS: 1. Kevin Harvick, 2,586; 2. Greg Biffle, 2,474; 3. Jason Keller, 2,377; 4. Jeff Green, 2,374; 5. Tony Raines, 2,109; 6. Mike McLaughlin, 2,097; 7. Jeff Purvis, 2,072; 8. Elton Sawyer, 1,979; 9. Jimmie Johnson, 1,945; 10. Chad Little, 1,913.
WHAT: O'Reilly Auto Parts 250.
WHEN/TV/WHERE: Friday, qualifying, 3 p.m.; Saturday, race (1 p.m., ESPN); Kansas City, Kan.
2000 WINNER: Inaugural race.
FAST FACTS: Joe Ruttman finished sixth in the GNC Live Well 200 to take the series lead from Scott Riggs, who wound up 26th. Ron Hornaday won 10 inaugural events while on the circuit.
POINTS STANDINGS: 1. Ruttman, 1,732; 2. Riggs, 1,726; 3. Jack Sprague, 1,673; 4. Ted Musgrave, 1,600; 5. Ricky Hendrick, 1,586; 6. Travis Kvapil, 1,585; 7. Terry Cook, 1,548; 8. Rick Crawford, 1,443; 9. Dennis Setzer, 1,374; 10. Matt Crafton, 1,363.
WHAT: Ameristar Casino Indy 200.
WHEN/TV/WHERE: Saturday, qualifying, 3:15 p.m.; (6 p.m., ESPN2, tape); Sunday, race (1 p.m., Ch. 28); Kansas City, Kan.
2000 WINNER: Inaugural event.
FAST FACTS: The victory in the SunTrust Indy Challenge on Saturday at Richmond was the sixth overall for Buddy Lazier, tying him with Scott Sharp for the most in IRL history. Greg Ray, the 1999 series champion, was expected to return in Kansas City after missing the Richmond race. The IRL would not clear him to compete after he hurt his back when he crashed a day earlier. Sam Hornish Jr. finished second in Richmond, and leads the standings after seven of 13 races.
POINTS STANDINGS: 1. Hornish, 269; 2. Lazier, 219; 3. Sharp, 201; 4. Eliseo Salazar, 191; 5. Felipe Giaffone, 185; 6. Billy Boat, 159; 7. Jeff Ward, 144; 8. Buzz Calkins, 139; 9. Airton Dare, 129; 10. Al Unser Jr., 127.
WHAT: Pep Boys 50th Anniversary Nationals.
WHEN/TV/WHERE: Today, qualifying, 5 p.m.; Friday, qualifying, 6:30 p.m. (7:30 p.m., ESPN2); Saturday, eliminations, 7 p.m. (10 p.m., ESPN2); Pomona, Calif.
2000 WINNER: Inaugural event.
FAST FACTS: Pomona is the oldest venue on the circuit. The track was the site of the NHRA's first organized drag race in 1953. The event is to commemorate the NHRA's 50th anniversary. The track has hosted the season-opening AutoZone Winternationals since 1961 and the season-ending Southern California NHRA Finals since 1984.
POINTS STANDINGS: Top Fuel -- 1. Kenny Bernstein, 1,051; 2. Larry Dixon, 971; 3. Doug Kalitta, 862; 4. Mike Dunn, 848; 5. Darrell Russell, 786; 6. Gary Scelzi, 747; 7. Tony Schumacher, 638; 8. Doug Herbert, 567; 9. David Grubnic, 490; 10. Rhonda Hartman-Smith, 441. Funny Car -- 1. John Force, 1,033; 2. Del Worsham, 762; 3. Tony Pedregon, 727; 4. Bruce Sarver, 726; 5. Ron Capps, 686; 6. Whit Bazemore, 679; 7. Frank Pedregon, 624; 8. Tommy Johnson Jr., 602; 9. Dean Skuza, 569; 10. Gary Densham, 513. Pro Stock -- 1. Warren Johnson, 884; 2. Jim Yates, 808; 3. Mark Pawuk, 749; 4. Jeg Coughlin, 707; 5. Mark Osborne, 620; 6. Mike Edwards, 605; 7. Kurt Johnson, 582; 8. Ron Krisher, 581; 9. Bruce Allen, 563; 10. Brad Jeter, 501. Pro Stock Motorcycle -- 1. Angelle Savoie, 615; 2. Antron Brown, 582; 3. Matt Hines, 574; 4. Craig Treble, 486; 5. Reggie Showers, 390; 6. Geno Scali, 380; 7. GT Tonglet, 380; 8. Shawn Gann, 369; 9. Steve Johnson, 327; 10. Joe DeSantis, 268; Pro Stock Truck -- 1. Bob Panella Jr., 773; 2. Greg Stanfield, 732; 3. Randy Daniels, 716; 4. Jeff Gracia, 593; 5. Scott Perin, 481; 6. Todd Patterson, 461; 7. Don Smith, 452; 8. Taylor Lastor, 365; 9. Jeff Naiser, 349; 10. Victor Cagnazzi, 348.
UP NEXT: Molson Indy, July 15, Toronto.
POINTS STANDINGS: 1. Kenny Brack, 84; 2. Helio Castroneves, 70; 3. Dario Franchitti, 65; 4. Gil de Ferran, 56; 5. Cristiano da Matta, 55; 6. Michael Andretti, 53; 7. Jimmy Vasser, 50; 8. Christian Fittipaldi, 48; 9. Scott Dixon, 44; 10. Roberto Moreno, 41.
UP NEXT: British Grand Prix, July 15, Silverstone, England.
POINTS STANDINGS: 1. Michael Schumacher, 78; 2. David Coulthard, 47; 3. Ralf Schumacher, 31; 4. Rubens Barrichello, 30; 5. Juan Montoya, 12; 6. Nick Heidfeld, 9; 7. Mika Hakkinen, 9; 8. Jarno Trulli, 9; 9. Jacques Villeneuve, 7; 10. Kimi Raikkonen, 7.