DAYTONA BEACH, FLA. — We knew that the two-by-two racing would play a significant role in Sunday's Daytona 500. And we knew that Michael Waltrip would have a significant role on the 10th anniversary of his landmark 2001 win. As it turns out, both storylines blended early in the race, with catastrophic effect.
In Lap 29, Michael Waltrip, pushing David Reutimann, got misaligned and spun Reutimann, triggering a wreck that took out literally one-third of the field. Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Brian Vickers, Greg Biffle, Marcos Ambrose and feel-good story Brian Keselowski were among those collected in the wreck.
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Coincidentally, Waltrip had spun out Kyle Busch earlier in the race in almost exactly the same way. But in that incident, Busch didn't hit anyone, and was able to get back in the mix with little lost but some sheet metal. Reutimann and the huge pack around him weren't quite so lucky.
"I'm involved in both [spins] and I don't know what I could have done different," Waltrip said afterward. "... I just hate it. I hate it that my cars got tore up and I hate it that you have to be so aggressive so early. Maybe you don't. Probably now you can see that probably waiting around would have been a good idea."
"It wasn't Mike's fault," Reutimann said.
But others could, and did, take issue with Waltrip.
"The first four, five, six rows, guys are pushing hard to maintain position," Gordon said. "You expect a little more patience further back, and that's not what I'm seeing now. Guys are so adamant about getting with their drafting partner and getting that push and getting up there into that top 6, 8 cars, some guys are getting in such trouble because of it."
The new points system heavily penalizes drivers for poor finishes, and as a result the garage was a whirling nest of duct tape and welding torches as crews worked to get their cars back on the track. Johnson and Biffle were the first out of the garage, while Gordon, Reutimann and Vickers, among many others, could only wait as their crews hammered their cars back into some kind of race-ready shape.
Waltrip, his day done ("that's a hundred thousand right there," he said ruefully as he looked at his ruined front end), tried to stress the difficulty of this kind of racing. "When people watch and say (in a disappointed voice), 'What's this?' Damn! It's hard," he said. "You're just so focused. You're watching your temperature gauge. You're watching the car in front of you. You're wondering what's ahead. You're wondering what's coming up from behind. There are so many things happening mentally that it's almost impossible to keep up with."
But many fans weren't feeling particularly charitable. Rage at Waltrip boiled over on Twitter and in the Daytona infield. "Hey, Waltrip!" one fan yelled as Waltrip was doing postcrash interviews. "Tell me what time you're leaving so I can get out ahead of you!"
Waltrip made no indication that he heard the fan. But if the fan did decide to depart the race early, he had plenty of disappointed drivers joining him in heading for the exit.
As he watched crews pounding his car back into shape, Gordon was philosophical. "It's exciting," he shrugged. "I think it's going to be a great finish."