Season opener at Daytona shorten by rain

Season opener at Daytona shorten by rain

The 2003 season opener at Daytona International Speedway got underway early due to a prediction of rain in the forecast. With the field 14 rows deep and three abreast, Michael Waltrip put his DEI Chevy out front to lead the first lap -- a lead...

The 2003 season opener at Daytona International Speedway got underway early due to a prediction of rain in the forecast. With the field 14 rows deep and three abreast, Michael Waltrip put his DEI Chevy out front to lead the first lap -- a lead that he would later regain at the critical moment.

Pole-sitter Jeff Green snookered Dale Earnhardt Jr. at the green flag; however, once out in front, Green was a lone duck and the field came and gobbled him up placing him mid-pack by the end of lap one.

Michael Waltrip.
Photo by Greg Gage.

The drivers were fighting a headwind going into turn one in the opening laps, yet still managed to stay two to three abreast until the first pit stops. DEI teammates Waltrip and Earnhardt Jr. worked together to run side by side in the lead in order to keep the engines cool. Earnhardt commented, "Yep, the car is getting hot but 210 to 215 temp is okay, just worry when it gets to 220."

Team strategy was to pit early in the fuel window to avoid the gaggle of cars on pit road at the same time. The Roush Racing team had a miscue on Jeff Burton's pitstop as the catch can remained attached to the Ford as Burton returned to the track. One of NASCAR rules states that" no one can leave the pit box with pit equipment," so Burton was forced to pit again for the penalty. However, the team was allowed to add fuel on the second stop.

2002 Winston Cup Champion Tony Stewart was the leader after the first round of pitstops. On lap forty-three, the extra paved area of turn four came into play when Bobby Labonte spun and used the area to scrub off the speed. Labonte did not have contact but did go into the record book as bringing out the first caution of the 2003 Daytona 500.

On the exit of turn four on lap sixty-one, the Dodge of Ken Schrader got loose and hit the outside wall exiting turn four. Schrader bounced off and hit Newman in the right rear, tearing off the wheel and putting Newman in the same wall. Newman's Dodge caught air and flipped over, first end-on-end and then side-to-side, before landing on its roof.

Newman immediately showed signs of movement in the car before safety teams helped him out of the destroyed Dodge.

Schrader slid through the infield grass and into the pit road inside wall before pinning the Chevy of Terry Labonte up against the wall. Labonte had entered the pit road trying to avoid the on-track melee.

Newman, Schrader, and Labonte were taken to the infield care center and released.

"I got a little dirt in my teeth," stated Newman. "We were three wide and not sure what happened. I was stuck in the car at the end with a large piece of sod on my lap. I could not get out due to the damage and twisted metal parts around. Just waited for them to pry me out. I am okay."

Labonte and Schrader teams went to work to get them back out on track and then the rain fell on the speedway bringing out the red flag. Teams are not allowed to work on the cars during a red flag race stoppage.

Earnhardt Jr. had the lead when the red flag was shown on lap 64. "It looks pretty bad right now," Earnhardt Jr. stated during the rain stoppage. "They have been talking about the weather all morning, and it came. I hope we do not stop it early, we need to do 500 miles -- that is what the race is about. My car is running good."

Teams scrambled to get the cars restarted when the track dried, including the then-leader Earnhardt Jr. whose car would not refire. NASCAR rules allow the teams to push the cars after a red flag without a penalty of loss of position behind the pace car, after a one lap under yellow, the team are allowed to pit for changes, tires and fuel before the green.

The DEI team did get Earnhardt Jr. running in time and pitted prior to the green but felt the problem was in the main power switch and once running, the problem would be okay.

Waltrip was first out to lead the field to the green flag restart. Earnhardt Jr. reported the voltage was decreasing until lap 90 when the engine started to cut out. The team did a battery replacement costing Earnhardt Jr. two laps. Elliott Sadler also had electrical problem in his Robert Yates Racing Ford, the team felt as the engine got hot again, the problem would clear up.

The "Under the yellow line to gain position" new rule saw it's first penalty to the twice-Daytona 500 winner Sterling Marlin. The team felt he was pushed down, however, the penalty stood. "We were forced down," said Crew Chief Lee McCall. "We'll see what we get here, hope for a caution so we do not lose a lap."

The Winston Cup teams were staying out to get the 100 lap half-way mark in prior to the second rain showers shown on radar screens.

Contact between Jeff Green and Jimmy Spencer brought out the caution on lap 95. Green's Richard Childress Racing Chevy had a tire go and spun around taking out Spencer who was going high to avoid. The Ultra Motorsport driver Spencer and Green were checked and released from the infield care center.

Morgan-McClure Motorsports driver Mike Skinner brought out the next caution as his Pontiac's front end appeared to lock up causing sparks and shredding parts on track.

At the 102 lap mark, Jimmie Johnson had the lead in his Hendrick Motorsports Chevy with Waltrip in second. Behind the duo were Johnson's teammate Jeff Gordon running three wide with Tony Stewart and Earnhardt Jr. who was one lap down trying to gain his lap back. Earnhardt took some air, slid up to lightly tap the Joe Gibbs Racing driver Stewart who then slid up into Gordon. Stewart drove his Chevy sideways as if he was back in a Midget car. All three continued at speed.

Waltrip and teammate Earnhardt Jr. made the move to put Waltrip in the lead on lap 106. Caution brought out by Ward Burton on lap 107 when he hit the wall. Burton was checked and released from the infield care center.

The caution stayed out as rain was reported on the backstretch. On lap 109, the race was stopped for the second time.

At 5:33 p.m. ET, NASCAR declared the end of the race when the rain began to come down again.

As he and wife, Buffy sat under an umbrella in the DEI pit box, Waltrip jumped with joy as he was informed that he had just won his second Daytona 500.

"I can't believe it," stated a very emotional Waltrip. "I was telling Buffy that they [NASCAR] had not shorten it since 1976, they were overdue."

Waltrip first trip to the Daytona 500 victory circle was in 2001 in what was to become a sad day in NASCAR history. DEI and driver Dale Earnhardt, Sr. gave Waltrip his biggest opportunity in his career. Waltrip won his first ever Winston Cup race and DEI's first Winston win on the day that Earnhardt Sr. died from injuries sustained in a final lap crash.

"I know Dale [Earnhardt Sr.] is smiling down on me," said Waltrip "I am so thankful for the opportunity he came me and for Theresa who is running DEI now. It is just amazing that we put that car in the front [referring to teammate Earnhardt Jr.'s and his move to allow Waltrip the lead]. You just don't know what it going to happen in this race. To win it and what the Daytona 500 means, this is the best moment."

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Series NASCAR-CUP