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VICTORY IS BITTERSWEET FOR WALTRIP

It was the best -- and worst -- day of Michael Waltrip's life.

"There's someplace I'd rather be than here," Waltrip said in the press box Sunday after he won the Daytona 500. "The only reason I won this race was Dale Earnhardt. I was so looking forward to doing well for him."

At the time, Waltrip didn't know his new boss and long-time friend had died from injuries suffered in a last-lap wreck.

Even so, Waltrip knew the biggest day of his life would be, at best, a bittersweet experience. It wasn't until about two hours later that Earnhardt's death was announced.

". . . He wasn't there in Victory Lane and I didn't know that he was hurt," the unknowing Waltrip said. "I just pray that he's OK. That's where my mind is. He's more than just my owner. He's my friend. My heart's just hurting right now. I want to know what he's going through, and I want to be with him, to try and help him.

"I'm just so thankful for everything he's done for me. And this is how it all turns out. It doesn't all seem exactly right at this moment for me."

Waltrip's postrace press conference was cut short as an official from the Dale Earnhardt, Inc., team quickly ushered the winner out of the press box.

Waltrip, who carried Winston Cup racing's longest active non-winning streak into the race 462 starts -- wound up winning the biggest of them all.

Driving his first race for a new team formed by Earnhardt, Waltrip was ahead of both Dale Earnhardts as the field entered the third turn on the final lap.

With a teammate (Junior) and the team owner of both cars lined up behind them, it would have taken a miracle for someone else to win it.

Waltrip would have gladly traded that miracle, and any other miracle, for the bitter news he later learned.

At the end of a long, tense afternoon of impossibly close racing -- and one big 21-car crash that sent Tony Stewart to the hospital -- Waltrip closed in on his win while his employer met his unfortunate fate.

Otherwise, it could have been the sweetest day of Waltrip's life.

Long regarded as a hard-luck driver who lived in the shadow of his brother Darrell, a three-time Winston Cup points champion, Waltrip had come close but had only one victory on the Winston Cup circuit. That came in The Winston, a non-points all-star race in 1996.

His brother, who retired last year as the third-winningest driver in NASCAR history, was in the Fox Network TV booth calling the race. Like Ned Jarrett had done when his son, Dale, won his first Daytona 500 in 1993, Darrell Waltrip cheered his kid brother to victory.

Michael Waltrip seemed destined to a career as an also-ran when Earnhardt hired him to drive for a third Winston Cup team he was forming for the 2001 season. It was easily the best opportunity the 37-year-old driver had ever gotten and he delivered

Waltrip started 19th and bided his time. The new aerodynamics package NASCAR installed on the cars had the desired effect -- very close racing -- and he stayed clear of the worst of it.

Waltrip took the lead -- the 48th lead change of the afternoon -- for good from Sterling Marlin on lap 184. He held off determined charges from the pack the rest of the way.

Waltrip's winning margin over Dale Earnhardt Jr., was .0124 of a second.

"This would all be a dream if it weren't for Dale Earnhardt," an emotional Waltrip said. "He and (wife) Teresa gave me this opportunity and I'm so thankful."

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