DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- When Michael Waltrip said he was in a good place, he wasn't just talking about Victory Lane.
He was talking about his emotional state after a 17-month odyssey that came to a crescendo Saturday night with a victory at the Pepsi 400.
The 39-year-old driver's second career victory came at the same place as his first, but under vastly different circumstances. He never really got to celebrate his breakthrough victory last February in the Daytona 500 because his friend, mentor and boss, Dale Earnhardt, was killed just moments before Waltrip crossed the finish line.
A slump ensued and naturally, those in NASCAR circles thought it was brought on by the emotional toll of Earnhardt's death. As the struggles continued, Waltrip's future at Dale Earnhardt Inc., came into question.
But Waltrip didn't worry much. He figured things would work out in his favor one way or another.
"I've been solidly, solidly in a good place mentally since last fall," Waltrip said. "I admit I didn't know where I was for a while or what I wanted to do, and that's unfortunate because so many people count on me. I couldn't help it."
Now, instead of looking for a job, Waltrip ought to think about asking for a raise.
Over the last 2 1/2 months, Waltrip has outperformed his teammate, Dale Earnhardt Jr. The job that once appeared in jeopardy now seems locked up. Waltrip is expected to sign a contract extension with DEI, possibly as soon as this week, when the Winston Cup series heads to Chicago.
"We struggled some at the first of this year and that was really freaking me out," Waltrip said. "I never one time thought I couldn't do this job and I don't believe that I can't go to Chicago and win that race. I'm happy with the way I look at this job."
Odd as it seems, NASCAR might be looking forward to getting out of Daytona for a while. The two races this year at stock-car racing's most famous track have ended in strange and disputed fashion.
This time, an accident with 2 1/2 laps remaining slowed the drivers for the end of the race. Possibly remembering NASCAR's decision to throw a red flag with seven laps remaining at the end of the Daytona 500 in February, fans wondered why this race couldn't end similarly. They showed their displeasure by throwing seat cushions, beer cans, hot-dog wrappers and all sorts of debris onto the backstretch.
"That's a shame 200 people make 100,000 look bad," Jeff Burton said. "It's certainly uncalled for and unacceptable."
Luckily, no injuries were reported. NASCAR spokesman Jim Hunter said race officials felt perfectly good about their decision. With only 2 1/2 laps left, Hunter explained, there was no way to get the cars up to speed in time to ensure a clean and fast restart. Under those conditions, finishing under yellow made sense.
Still, NASCAR was left with something of a credibility problem.
It has no definitive rules for which conditions warrant a red flag. For example, a week after the Daytona 500, NASCAR didn't throw the red flag even though the race in Rockingham was nearing an end with an accident on the track. But they stopped the race in Michigan last month when caution came out with six laps to go.
Sterling Marlin, the driver who ended up the unlucky loser because of NASCAR's decisions the first two weeks, agreed with what happened Saturday.
"It's hard to take the race away from somebody," he said, figuring Waltrip might have been beaten in a restart.
Waltrip didn't see it that way -- he clearly had the best car in the field. He led 99 of 160 laps, and thinks he'd have won the race no matter what color the flag had been at the end.
Maybe that's why he didn't view all the debris tossing as a protest.
"I thought they were congratulating me," he said. "I thought it was like a ticker-tape parade. You mean they were mad? I'm so stupid sometimes."
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