The sign flapped from the back of a motor home hard by Turn 4 at
Daytona International Speedway, not 200 yards from the spot where
the black number 3 Chevy had hit the wall in a fatal last-lap
wreck two years ago. Dale Earnhardt, the sign proclaimed, was
back at the Daytona 500, only this time WATCHING FROM A HIGHER
GRAND STAND. Indeed, everywhere you looked, there was a reminder
of the Intimidator: his face staring back at you from hundreds of
T-shirts, a makeshift shrine erected in his honor in the infield
and, above all, the two racing teams inextricably linked to
him--Dale Earnhardt, Inc. (DEI), which he founded in 1996, and
Richard Childress Racing (RCR), for which he won 67 races and six
Winston Cup titles.
Those two teams spent the better part of Speed Weeks fighting it
out for superspeedway supremacy, and in the end Earnhardt's
gutsiest call as a car owner--hiring driver Michael Waltrip in
2001 despite Waltrip's age, 37, and Winston Cup record, 0 for
462--was once again vindicated. For the second time in three
years Waltrip won the Great American Race. One day, perhaps,
he'll be able to enjoy a normal victory celebration. In 2001 a
shaken Waltrip hurried from Victory Lane to the hospital where
Earnhardt had been taken after his last-lap crash. This time his
postrace celebration was more upbeat yet still atypical. While
Waltrip and his wife, Buffy, were sitting atop his team's
pit-road war wagon, waiting out a second rain delay, NASCAR
declared him the Daytona 500 winner after calling the race 91
laps short of the scheduled 200.
DEI and RCR take great pride in dominating restrictor-plate
racing, and that conceit originated with Earnhardt, who won only
one Daytona 500 in his 22-year Winston Cup career but was
victorious in 34 other races at Daytona. "This was Dale's
playground," says DEI executive vice president Ty Norris, "and if
we weren't competitive here, he'd be embarrassed for us. We're
not going to embarrass him. That's why we put so much effort into
Earnhardt's influence is still felt strongly at RCR, for whom he
drove the last 17 years of his life and established a Daytona
legacy that Childress's current stable has upheld. The RCR team
has become so accustomed to success at the superspeedway by the
shore that crew members were moping around after Kevin Harvick,
driving Earnhardt's old car, qualified sixth for the 500.
Childress was stunned by their reaction. "I said, 'You're
disappointed with sixth? Man, I'd have kissed a monkey's butt in
the winner's circle just to be in the top 10 down here before,'"
he said, a reference to Earnhardt's early years on the circuit.
In addition to the Earnhardt legacy, DEI and RCR share
information such as wind-tunnel data and body position. "It's
like Larry Bird and Magic Johnson in their prime," says Norris.
"Even though they had a rivalry and were driven to beat each
other, they had a friendship. That's where RCR and DEI are when
it comes to these races."
Dale Earnhardt Jr., however, made sure the relationship between
the two teams didn't get too warm and fuzzy. After RCR's Jeff
Green unexpectedly nipped Junior for the pole on Feb. 10 and
teammate Robby Gordon won the first 125-mile qualifying race
three days later, Junior talked a little smack. "They've just got
a volatile little situation over there," the DEI driver said of
the uneasy relationship the RCR drivers have with one another.
"You've got Richard Childress over there busting his ass for all
these years to get what he's got, and I don't think those guys
appreciate what the man is in this sport and the opportunity they
have in his race cars." (Green's retort: "That's chickens---.")
Junior wasn't through. When asked about the impending showdown in
Sunday's race, he added, "Michael and I would definitely whup 'em
in a tag-team drafting match."
Waltrip and Junior navigate the draft with a skill reminiscent of
Earnhardt the Elder, whose prowess on superspeedways spawned the
legend that he could see the air as it flowed over cars, thus
allowing him to avoid the rough air that would slow him down.
While that tale is bunk, Earnhardt did have a drafting trick or
two, which he kept secret. Over the years, however, Junior
learned them by carefully watching his dad race and taking
copious mental notes.
All that studying paid off for Junior, who took the checkered
flag in four of the eight Winston Cup restrictor-plate races in
2001 and '02 and dominated Daytona this month, winning the Bud
Shootout on Feb. 8, the second 125-mile qualifying race for the
500 and the Busch race on the eve of the main event. That put him
in position to win an unprecedented four Speed Weeks races in one
year. He also completely overshadowed Waltrip. Three days before
the 500, after listing the qualities that make Junior great at
restrictor-plate tracks--foresight, patience, a rudimentary grasp
of aerodynamics--Norris, who also serves as Junior's spotter,
added, "Michael's exactly the same. Michael's amazing at these
places. He's as spectacular as Dale or Dale Jr. Now he's finally
in equipment that allows him to showcase that talent."
Waltrip spent his formative years paying attention to his older
brother, Darrell, who drove Winston Cup for 17 years. "I'd say
[Junior and I] are historians of the sport," says the younger
Waltrip. "We grew up around it, and we weren't goofing off all
the time when people thought we were. We were watching and
learning, so I think we are able to understand where we need to
go [on superspeedways], and our cars are fast enough to get us
Thanks to their team's considerable resources, Junior and Waltrip
routinely have the best rides. "I've heard they've got people
working on restrictor-plate stuff all year long," said Green,
sounding like a wide-eyed kid. "If you have people working on
stuff for four races all year long, you're going to be ahead of
In fact DEI has had fabricators and engine builders dedicated to
plate racing since shortly after the 1998 Daytona 500, when Steve
Park, then the team's sole driver, finished 41st. That
performance prompted Earnhardt Sr. to take the unprecedented step
of committing seven or eight shop workers almost exclusively to
restrictor-plate cars. Heading into Sunday's race, DEI had won
six of the last eight plate races, and Junior and Waltrip ran
one-two most of the way in this year's race. (The RCR boys,
meanwhile, enjoyed mixed success. Harvick and Gordon hovered
around the top five for most of the race, but Green dropped from
first to 20th in just five laps and wrecked on Lap 94.)
On Lap 87, however, Junior began dropping through the field when
a failing alternator sapped the juice from his battery. Forced to
make a lengthy pit stop to change batteries, he fell two laps
down and ended up 36th. His misfortune was great news for the
field. "When the 8 car dropped out," said second-place finisher
Kurt Busch, "everybody's face lit up, everybody's eyes got big,
everybody's right foot got heavy."
With Junior out of the picture, the other drivers' biggest
concern became the weather. Heavy rains had been forecast for the
afternoon, which prompted NASCAR to push up the start of the race
by a half hour. A shower on Lap 63 led to a 68-minute delay, and
after the cars got back onto the track, the looming gray clouds
made it apparent that the field wouldn't stay dry much past Lap
100, when the race would become official. Anticipating the
downpour, Jimmie Johnson's crew chief, Chad Knaus, made a gutsy
call on Lap 97, when most of the leaders pitted during a caution.
Knaus filled the tank only halfway, enabling Johnson, who had
been running third, to get out of his stall in seven seconds and
pass Waltrip and Tony Stewart for the lead.
Thanks to some cool driving and Knaus's pit ploy, Johnson--who
took the pole as a rookie at the 2002 Daytona 500 but finished a
lap down in 15th place--was a well-timed downpour from becoming
the first modern-era driver to win the 500 in just his second
start. "We were definitely praying for rain," Knaus said on pit
road shortly before the race was called. "If the rain showed up
five minutes sooner, we would have been leading this thing."
But the race went green again on Lap 106, and because of a NASCAR
rule that allows cars a lap down to line up to the inside of
lead-lap cars on restarts, Johnson had Junior to his left and
Waltrip directly behind him. The DEI drafting partners were
within reach of each other. "We knew we were done," said Knaus.
"Those guys are the epitome of team. If one goes, the other one
sticks with him." Earnhardt got a good jump as the green flag
fell. Waltrip slid in behind him, then held on as Junior gave him
an aerodynamic tow past Johnson. Safely in the lead, it was
Waltrip's turn to look to the heavens and ask for rain.
This time, perhaps with a little help from someone in a higher
grandstand, those prayers were answered.
Read Mark Bechtel's Inside NASCAR column every week on
LIT UP, EVERYBODY'S EYES GOT BIG, everybody's right foot got