As Michael Waltrip came off Turn 4, all it took to nail down an emotional victory 10 years after the date of Dale Earnhardt’s death – and Waltrip’s own Daytona 500 triumph – was a last-ditch run to pass Elliott Sadler.
It was then that Waltrip’s spoiler went down, too; and everything from that moment on, despite a compelling drive to victory for him, remains under a cloud of uncertainty Saturday morning.
In the midst of palpable emotion, memories of Dale Earnhardt and the significance of the 10-year anniversary overwhelming Waltrip concerns over how and what happened to “spoil” the run to the checkered flag became a hot topic during post-race activity. This much we know: the right side of the spoiler was angled flat, clearly at an illegal angle when Waltrip crossed the line. The bizarre turn of events roused drivers Kasey Kahne and Robby Gordon on Twitter, both questioning its legality before the No. 15 Toyota could even drive its way into Victory Lane.
Immediately, NASCAR confiscated both sides of the spoiler and will take them back to their R&D Center in North Carolina for further inspection. Late Friday night, PR spokesman Kerry Tharp gave some basic speculation on the issue but explained the win will stand regardless of what they find going forward.
“The spoiler broke,” he explained. “It appeared to be a failure on a part, we’re going to look at it and make any determinations past that.”
Here’s what Waltrip had to say on the incident, with two questions posed by Gary Graves of USA Today and myself:
Graves: Obvious question, Michael: What happened with the spoiler on your truck?
Michael Waltrip: I don’t know. I just know if it had fallen off before the checkered, they would have black-flagged me. I guess that last push with, um… I think they said we went a second faster than we did all day long, and then the constant beating on the back of the truck from the other trucks, and then that last push with me on Elliott, all the air off his truck and my truck onto the back just knocked it loose. I’m just so thankful it hung on until the checkered, because I didn’t even know it was an issue. I didn’t even see it until after the race.
Graves: Doug, was there any notice of it in the pits?
No. 15 crew chief Doug Howe: No, there was no damage.
Bowles: Mike, congrats on your very emotional win. In this day and age, we have instant response on Twitter, and to quote Kasey Kahne: “I need to figure out how to get my spoiler to fall off if that’s legal. Wow.” There have been a couple of other drivers saying the same thing; what’s your reaction when you have peers saying that stuff right after a win, and what do you say to people who might view this with a little bit of skepticism?
Waltrip: It’s been a long day.
Under normal, green-flag conditions Waltrip was right; the NASCAR rulebook would mandate a black-flag to fix the equipment, but since it happened so close to the checkered flag no penalty was issued. Of course, there are two sides to every story and Elliott Sadler, the second-place finisher after Waltrip’s sudden boost to the checkered believes the spoiler had nothing to do with him winning the race.
“I asked him [Waltrip] how’d he do that,” Sadler joked. “Where’s the switch [to fold down spoiler?]” Turning serious, he told reporters of his confidence in the victory while focusing on Waltrip’s emotions on this memorable anniversary.
I went to Victory Lane and told him if anybody deserves to win a race today, it’s you,” he said. “You deserve to celebrate tonight and cherish this moment.”
The question now, of course, is whether that moment will be tarnished by probation, a fine, or something worse. Tharp explained the entire three-part piece of the spoiler was instructed to be removed from the car, with the bolts that hold it in place included. That contradicted a NASCAR official, speaking on condition of anonymity after the race who explained, “We don’t tell the teams how to take the spoilers off.”
*POST-INSPECTION SHOT 1: NORMAL TRUCK (CLAY ROGERS)*
*POST-INSPECTION SHOT 2: MICHAEL WALTRIP’s TRUCK*
So what happens now? It’ll be early in the week before NASCAR issues a ruling, although considering the timing of the incident and the confirmation Friday’s victory will stand, a major penalty seems unlikely at best.
“I don’t think it was seen,” added a second official when contacted. “I guess if they prove how it broke, it won’t be an issue. I am very curious. But generally, you prove what damage caused it and you’re fine.”
The incident comes in the midst of Speedweeks drama over Dale Earnhardt, Sr.’s 10th anniversary; earlier in the week, the integrity of Dale Jr.’s pole-winning run was questioned by Liz Clarke of the _Washington Post_ and led to criticism on _Pardon The Interruption_ that set off a firestorm of discussion about the possibility NASCAR would ever “fix” an event. In the meantime, though, Waltrip refuses to focus on any negative talk and will relish in a victory he claims was determined by fate.
“With the 10th anniversary of that terrible day, I believe in God, and I believe everything happens for a reason,” he said. “That’s what enabled me to live the last ten years without total self-destruction, because of that.”
It’ll be a few days, at least, before we know whether that’s the only answer to what we saw on that final lap.
_Bryan Davis Keith and Jay Pennell contributed to this report._
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