In a week when a veteran sports writer claimed on US national television that Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s pole position for the Daytona 500 was a fix arranged with NASCAR’s blessing what are the conspiracy theorists going to make of the result of Friday’s NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race at Daytona International Speedway?
Michael Waltrip won his first truck race exactly ten years to the day after he ended a 462 race winless streak in the Sprint Cup Series by winning the big one, the Daytona 500, at the moment his team boss and mentor, the legendary Dale Earnhardt died in a last lap crash. And appropriately on Friday he won in a black race vehicle sporting the #15, just as he did a decade ago, in honour of Earnhardt.
A very, very emotional Waltrip said in victory lane, “I came here to celebrate his life with my black truck and my No. 15 car, I didn’t come here to celebrate a win.”
It was an inspired win from great tactical thinking. A massive crash just before the scheduled finish – the second “big one” of the night – brought a red flag on lap 97. On the restart, whilst following the pace car, Waltrip said that he was going to let the second place Elliott Sadler move ahead of him and drop to the bottom line just as he had at the previous restart. Many commentators were doubting the wisdom of the move as the race was clearly going to finish under a green-white-checker two lap dash to the flag.
Waltrip sad glued to the rear of the #2 Chevrolet for virtually all of the two laps once racing recommenced but with exquisite timing, as Sadler protected the inside line Waltrip pulled up to the high line and just drove around him. There was some controversy at the end as half of the rear spoiler on the #15 car was sticking out horizontally at the rear of the truck, presumably giving some aerodynamic advantage but whatever caused that happened during the g-w-c finish. At the time of writing equipment failure is being touted as the possible cause. As is their way NASCAR are spending a few days reviewing the evidence before any pronouncements but historically they do not take away wins from drivers.
Second place man Sadler was quick to offer his congratulations to the Waltrip with the words, “If anyone deserves to win a race today, you do.”
Barely half the field was left running at the checkered flag after the two big crashes removed so many trucks including favourites Todd Bodine, Austin Dillon and Aric Almirola amongst others.
Of those who did make it to the flag worthy of note was Jennifer Jo Cobb whose sixth place is the highest finish for any woman in a Truck Series race and she also became the first woman to achieve a top ten finish at Daytona in any of the three national series in the modern era. Rookie Miguel Paludo, starting from 35th after his qualifying times were disallowed, finished in fourth place in only his fifth start in the series and James Buescher who finished in ninth led the most laps, 55, which exceeds the total number of laps he has led in all his previous forty-eight starts.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. accidentally made a nonsense of the conspiracy theorists claims when he wrecked his Sprint Cup race car in practice. As he is starting in his back-up car he will lead the field on to the track on Sunday and then have to drop to the rear of the field. And for Waltrip to win exactly ten years after the traumatic first Daytona victory of his could never have been contrived having seen the lottery of who got caught up in the big wrecks and who didn’t.
It was a well-earned win based on keeping out of trouble and having the courage to go with a brave strategy of Waltrip’s own devising. That it was such an emotional victory for this driver in particular, in the black car with that number and on that anniversary was just the icing on the cake.