Wimmer finishes third at Daytona

Long before Scott Wimmer took to the massive 2½-mile stock-car racing mecca that is Daytona International Speedway, it was at the half-mile New Smyrna Speedway oval 10 miles south of Daytona Beach where he pounded the asphalt.

Things were a lot simpler then. He was an unknown driver. When he was on top, he gained a little notoriety. When he was at the bottom, nobody was there to kick him while he was down.

In those days, he longed for the time when he finally would get to race with the big kids in the Daytona 500. And then, about two weeks before that opportunity would finally come, Wimmer was arrested for driving while impaired in High Point, N.C. -- and suddenly he craved that anonymity and simplicity that defined his life before.

On Sunday, Wimmer rose above the backlash and disappointment that followed his arrest and put his name in the headlines for a good reason. Wimmer asserted himself as the early favorite for the Raybestos Rookie of the Year title by bringing his No. 22 Dodge Intrepid home third at the Daytona 500.

The kid who used to watch the Twin 125s and dream of racing in the big event one day stepped up big when he finally got the chance, finishing behind superspeedway stars Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Tony Stewart.

"It's a big momentum boost for me," the 28-year-old Wisconsin native said. "I've been through a lot lately and I've kind of been down on myself, but I'm lucky that I've got great people behind me: Bill Davis Racing, Caterpillar, NASCAR, everybody that's helped me through my problem. I've still got a long road ahead, but we're going to get it fixed up and hopefully make it so nobody else makes the same mistake I did."

Wimmer used a two-tire pit stop late in the race to get off pit road first and lead the Great American Race. Junior and Stewart, both riding on four fresh tires, quickly caught and passed Wimmer, but Wimmer was able to ride the draft of Kurt Busch's lapped car and hang on for a top-three finish.

Had he had a little more help, Wimmer thought he might've been able to win the race.

"I was real excited after that pit stop leading the Daytona 500," Wimmer said. "It looked like I had a pretty good lead and then they just came so fast that there was nothing that I could really do. I tried to block Tony and he got into me pretty good there and before he turned me around I figured I'd better just settle back in third and hope for something to happen toward the end of the race."

Of the six Rookie of the Year contenders, Wimmer fared best throughout Speedweeks and heads to Rockingham, N.C., next weekend with plenty of momentum. Some of the other first-timers at Daytona didn't start the season quite as strong.

Scott Riggs, Kasey Kahne and Brian Vickers all wrecked in the first race of their first full seasons. Johnny Sauter did some beating and banging and finished seven laps down. Brendan Gaughan, who surprised more than a few folks during Speedweeks, finished one lap down in 19th place -- the only other rookie besides Wimmer to notch a top-20 finish.

The other rookies weren't hanging their heads after the race, though. It's just one race down, plenty more to go. And the learning curve for a rookie is steep; these guys are ecstatic to have learned so much preparing and running just one event.

"I'm looking forward to going to Rockingham," said Vickers, who brought his No. 25 Chevy home 39th. "We started last year just like this, and we ended up winning the (Busch Series) championship. So hopefully we have it come back like it did last year."

Kahne ran only 42 laps, but he feels the same way.

"We learned a lot out here, even though we didn't run that many laps," he said after bringing his No. 9 Dodge home 41st. "We'll sure be a lot better next time we come to a restrictor-plate race. It's a real disappointment. We didn't really even get to race, but we'll go on to Rockingham and be better."

Gaughan learned a valuable lesson. Coming into the race, he knew he'd need to earn the respect of his fellow drivers before somebody would be ready to draft with him. After the race, he realized he needed others' respect, as well.

"I have to earn NASCAR's respect just like the veterans' (respect)," he said after he was penalized for exceeding the pit road speed in his No. 77 Dodge. "I thought I was close. I thought I was on the pit road speed, but apparently I wasn't. I'll earn their respect just like I'll earn the veterans' respect.

"... I'm never satisfied with 19th, but I'm glad we got out of here. I'm glad we did all the stuff we did for (sponsor) Kodak this week. We shell-shocked the media, I hope. We want to keep that going all year and let our performance on the racetrack do a little of that (2002 rookie of the year) Ryan Newman talking."

As for Wimmer, he's not going to get ahead of himself. He's grateful for his finish, credits the team and believes this effort is going to carry the 22 crew into Rockingham at full speed.

"It's huge, especially (to finish well) in the 500," he said. "You can see a lot of people getting in wrecks and it puts guys down. You go back to the shop and you have a lot of work to do. We have a car that doesn't even have a scratch on it. I'm real excited going back to High Point and going on to Rockingham. We had a real good test down there and we had a good test at Vegas, too, so hopefully this is a sign of things to come."

And just because he didn't have heartache in the race doesn't mean he didn't leave with a lesson learned. Wimmer said he knows that he has a problem and that he let a lot of people down with the DWI in January. But he also knows he can't dwell on it. He has to mature and move forward.

And he learned that there's no better way to do that than to focus on the racing.

"The second I stepped out of the race car, I've still got to deal with my problems, and we're going to work on those and get those straightened out," he said. "... I've had a lot going on with the offseason, and when I get in that race car, I can put that behind me and not think about that stuff and just do what I'm paid to do."

Rupen Fofaria is a freelance writer living in Chicago and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at rfofaria@espnspecial.com.