Michael Waltrip took his first ever Winston Cup victory in what has turned out to be NASCAR's saddest day as the racing world mourns the loss of seven times Winston Cup Champion Dale Earnhardt.

Apologies for the lateness of this report but my original copy, telling of a breathtaking race in which the lead changed no less than 50 times and where the winner wasn't decided until the very last lap, seems rather insensitive right now.

Maybe the full story of what surely has to go down as one of the most exciting, and definitely the most tragic Daytona 500's in history, will come out in due time as, for the sake of the 43 men who took the green flag on Sunday afternoon and proceeded to keep the crowd at the track and everyone watching or listening to the race at home, rooted to the edge of their seats for the entire three hours that it took the race to complete its 200 lap course.

However the events on the final corner of the race now overshadow everything because it was in that final turn, on the final lap of America's Greatest Race that one of NASCAR's heroes, and one of my own, lost his life.

Positive things first.

Michael Waltrip, in his first race for Dale Earnhardt Inc, a team now threatened by the loss of its figurehead, lead the last 14 laps under intense pressure from a group of a dozen cars, all those left after a multi-car accident brought out the red flags on lap 175 and eliminated almost half the field.

Chasing Waltrip home was Dale Earnhardt Jr in another DEI car after a thrilling scrap on the last lap where Waltrip blocked and weaved all along the backstretch in his efforts to keep the hungry young charger behind him. Earnhardt Sr sat third as the cars entered Turn Three for the final time, with Sterling Marlin below him and Ken Schrader above.

Somewhere in Turn Three, either Marlin clipped Earnhardt or Earnhardt clipped Marlin but either way, the black No.3 Chevrolet swung violently into the path of Schrader and headed straight on into the outside wall before drifting back onto the tri-oval with Schrader's car embedded in the side.

Doctors have since announced that Earnhardt was probably killed on impact, as despite the best efforts of the NASCAR medical and safety team, he never regained consciousness and his wife Teresa was at his bedside when he finally passed.

The chasm his death leaves is unthinkable as Earnhardt is the man most people credit with bringing NASCAR into the major sports market and away from the South, where it had remained largely ensconced during the 1950's, 1960's and early 1970's. However Earnhardt's arrival (in 1975) coincided with the advent of live TV coverage of NASCAR races and for the first time, audiences across America could watch Winston Cup races in their entirety and Earnhardt was the man doing most of the winning.

This instantly found him fame, and a great deal of notoriety, as his hard charging, rough riding tactics earned him as many enemies as friends. 'The Intimidator,' 'The Man in Black,' 'The Black Attack' are all names that Earnhardt both earned, and then upheld with great pride and satisfaction but which are now consigned to history.

If anything can be taken from this event to soften the blow somewhat, it is that at the time of his death, Earnhardt had been battling ferociously, as he had been all afternoon, and although he was a little too far back to challenge Waltrip and Earnhardt, a 1-2-3 for the Earnhardt family at Daytona was a real possibility.

The minor positions are almost meaningless at the moment, but for the record Penske Racing's Rusty Wallace fought back valiantly to take third spot after losing a lap as early as lap 27 when a right front tyre went down (sound familiar) forcing him to pit and Wallace was one of the lucky men who was at the very front of the pack when all hell broke loose on lap 173.

Fourth was Ricky Rudd, also at the back of the pack when Robby Gordon, Ward Burton and Tony Stewart got together on the backstretch with the latter becoming airborne and barrel-rolling several times, creating chaos behind him as car after car piled forth into the wreckage, who came on strong during the second half of the race but failed to lead a lap for Robert Yates Racing while rounding out the top five was pole-sitter Bill Elliott in the best placed Dodge after a quiet race in which the veteran fought with a tight car in the early laps and then played the waiting game until the final 20 laps.

The Ray Evernham driver was one of several big names, Bobby Labonte and Dale Jarrett included who spent much of the race at the tail of the field, not getting involved in the frantic drafting battle for the lead that involved a good 20 drivers all day long but unlike Elliott, Labonte and Jarrett chose the wrong moment to move to the front and were in the middle of the pack when Stewart sprouted wings and not a single car from fourth back to 25th emerged unscathed such was the scale of the first crash.

Mike Wallace, who ran with the leaders all day in the Ultra Motorsports Ford, eventually came through to sixth after narrowly avoiding Earnhardt's crash in the No.7 Nations Rent Ford, in a day that was filled with heartening stories that will now, sadly, not be heard.

One such story was the form of Sterling Marlin in Chip Ganassi's Dodge, who led 39 laps and appeared to be the strongest car on the track along with fellow Dodge convert Ward Burton, who between them led 92 laps (39 for Marlin, 53 for Burton) and were able to hold off the Chevrolet, and Ford hoards with a little bit in hand.

However things turned sour for Marlin on lap 161 when he cut a tyre leading pace car round to the re-start after Kurt Busch's contact with the wall, the extra stop put him down nearly a lap and the driver of the No.40 Coors Light was clinging to his place on the lead lap, ahead of then-race leader Waltrip, who led a total of 29 laps, when Stewart crashed.

The 15-minute red flag period that followed allowed Marlin to regain his place on the lead lap, one of only 13 drivers now in contention for victory. However when the race re-started on lap179 Marlin just didn't have the edge he needed to re-take the lead and, after almost coming to grief with Earnhardt and Schrader, he eventually crossed the line seventh.

Eighth and eleventh places were good reward for Andy Petree Racing team-mates Bobby Hamilton and Joe Nemechek, with Hamilton looking particularly menacing in the final few laps before checking up to avoid the final turn accident.

Rounding out the top ten was Stacy Compton, taking the first top ten finish of his NASCAR career after a quiet run in which he survived simply by being in the right place at the right time.

Earnhardt and Schrader were eventually classified 12th and 13th respectively although most eyes choose to miss that and move directly down to Robert Pressley, one lap down in 14th and Brett Bodine in 15th. Kyle Petty drove steadily to take 16th spot after losing a lap during the second round of stops while Ron Hornaday was a disappointed 17th after fighting from the back of the field to challenge for the lead not once, but twice, during the first half of the race only to suffer a pitlane speeding violation and lose a lap.

In fact the performances of the 2001 R0ookie Class was another great story of a race that kept up its frenetic pace from start to finish as Hornaday, Busch, Jason Leffler, Andy Houston and Casey Atwood all made appearances inside the top five during the opening 100 laps only to fall back one by one as the race wore on. Busch hit the wall on lap 156 after contact with Nemechek and was classified 41st, Atwood lost three laps and came home 20th while Houston and Leffler were at the heart of Stewart's crash and were eliminated on the spot.

The list of potential winners caught up in the chaos on lap 173 is shocking: - Jeff Burton, who escaped with light damage and was able to continue home in 19th, Jarrett, whose RYR crew managed to get the crumpled No.88 UPS Ford back on the track only to have it black flagged for travelling too slowly and finish 22nd, Hendrick Motorsports Jeff Gordon and Jerry Nadeau, who looked strong all day but who have to make do with 30th and 32nd place finishes respectively, Mark Martin, who was coming on late in the race in the Roush Racing Ford , Ward Burton who led the most laps but who finished 35th and Joe Gibbs Racing team-mates Stewart and Labonte who never got to show their true speed and paid the price for trying to play a tactical game and making their move at the wrong time.

The question of where the Winston Cup goes from here is still unresolved, Sunday was supposed to be a day where NASCAR revelled at the start of a new era of TV coverage, sponsor deals and new manufacturers and it was, until the final lap.

Rockingham next week, if we are there, will be a very quiet place.