DAYTONA BEACH (Reuters) - Michael Waltrip, one of NASCAR's biggest losers, became its greatest winner by capturing Sunday's 43rd Daytona 500 in a race marred by a last-lap accident that killed NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt Sr.
Waltrip won the race in dramatic fashion as he held off his teammate, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and as his team owner, Earnhardt Sr., crashed in the fourth turn wall after he was tapped from behind by Sterling Marlin, which sent his Chevrolet up the track and into the fourth turn wall. Ken Schrader had nowhere to go and was also involved in the crash. As the team he owned celebrated victory, Earnhardt remained trapped in his car as safety workers took the seven-time NASCAR Winston Cup champion out of his car. Dale Earnhardt Jr. drove to the scene of the crash to check on his father, who was taken to Halifax Medical Center by ambulance. NBC reported that Earnhardt later died from severe chest injuries.
Earnhardt, a seven-time NASCAR Winston Cup champion, was 49.
It took. Waltrip, the younger brother of three-time NASCAR Winston Cup champion Darrell Waltrip 463 races to win his first race and he took the biggest one the sport has to offer - the Daytona 500.
Michael Waltrip led for the final 17 laps of the race to score the biggest victory of his career.
``It's just unbelievable,'' Waltrip said. ``I would have been 0-for-463 if it hadn't been for Dale Earnhardt Jr. This is the Daytona 500, that's all I know. I won the Daytona 500. I thought we were being a little bold, a little boisterous, thinking we could win this race. And we did!''
Waltrip had his crew loosen up the setup on the last pit stop to let him drive wide open at the end.
``I started playing the game, hoping I could hold them off,'' Waltrip said.
The crash on the final lap was the second big crash that had a dramatic impact on the outcome of the race, which had 50 lead changes among 14 different drivers. Last year, there were just nine lead changes.
The race was stopped for 16 minutes and 25 seconds following a major 19-car crash.
The crash was so wicked, it launched Tony Stewart's Pontiac into the air down the backstretch and decimated the field, taking out many of the contenders for victory. The race was red-flagged after the 19-car crash.
The crash began as the field came out of the second turn. Robby Gordon tapped Ward Burton's Dodge coming out of the second turn, which turned Burton's car into Stewart. That sent Stewart head-on into the backstretch wall and sent the car airborne on the 175th lap.
Stewart's car flew about 20 feet into the air and landed upside-down on Robby Gordon's Chevrolet. It then went into several hard barrel rolls down the backstretch.
That started a major crash that also involved defending Daytona 500 winner Dale Jarrett, Steve Park, Buckshot Jones, John Andretti, Jerry Nadeau, Jeff Gordon, Ward Burton, Bobby Labonte, Jeremy Mayfield, Dale Jarrett, Jeff Burton, Mark Martin, Jason Leffler, Elliott Sadler, Andy Houston, Robby Gordon, Rusty Wallace, Terry Labonte, Kenny Wallace, Bobby Labonte and Jeremy Mayfield.
``It was just a wall of cars in front of me and a lot of us didn't have anywhere to go,'' Jeff Gordon said. ``It's going to happen with these kinds of rules, somebody can't make a mistake. The guys were putting on a heck of a show and doing a real good job, but that is going to happen if someone makes a mistake.''