PHIL COALE / AP Enlarge
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - Michael Waltrip always felt like he was the right guy. He was convinced he was in the right profession, and at the right time in his life.
So what was wrong? From 1985 to 2001, Waltrip took part in 462 races on NASCAR s top circuit, yet never won. Apparently he had the wrong car - right?
Waltrip went to work for Dale Earnhardt for the 2001 season, and won the first race of the year - the Daytona 500 - the first win of his career. Waltrip said Earnhardt, the racing legend who died in a crash at the end of that same 2001 race, gave him the opportunity to win, and that was all he needed.
“A lot was made of how long I went without winning a race,” Waltrip said, “but I didn t feel pressure to win. The only pressure was worrying about whether or not I had the car to do it. When Dale hired me to drive his car, all of the pressure was off. I knew I would win with this car.”
Waltrip said he was the same driver who had gone 17 years without winning, but he was immediately perceived in a more positive manner when the association with Earnhardt began.
“It didn t change the way I looked at myself, but it definitely changed the way other people looked at me,” Waltrip said. “There might have been times when I doubted myself a little, but come Sunday mornings I was as positive as I could be. I just wasn t good enough to change the situation I was in, that s all.”
After bouncing around and working with four owners, the move to Earnhardt s team gave Waltrip security, credibility and the right equipment.
“You can be the best driver in the whole darned world, and if the car isn t right or the crew isn t right, you re going nowhere. A lot of guys never find the right place, but lucky for me, I did.”
After winning that 2001 Daytona 500, Waltrip came back the next year and won the Pepsi 400 on the same track, Daytona International Speedway. Last year he took his second win in the 500 here, and added a victory in September at Talladega.
He said his confidence was so high when 2003 started that he became outspoken and almost as brash as his older brother Darrell, a three-time Winston Cup.
“Last year I kind of reminded myself of my brother. I was just talking and not really monitoring what was coming out of my mouth,” Waltrip said. “I said I would win the Daytona 500, and then I thought about it and realized what kind of claim that was. Fortunately, it happened again for me here on this race track.”
Operating in his brother s large shadow, Michael Waltrip came up through the ranks. He raced go-karts in the Midwest before taking the mini-modified division track championship at Kentucky Speedway in 1981. He competed in the Goody s Dash Series in 1982, and won the title the following year.
Waltrip ran five Winston Cup races in 1985, and finished second to Alan Kulwicki in the rookie of the year standings. After winning the Busch Series race at Bristol in 1993, Waltrip saluted the then-recently deceased Kulwicki with a backwards victory lap around the track.
Waltrip grabbed a pole position here and a top-five finish there, but mostly toiled in a degree of obscurity until the move to Earnhardt s team. Waltrip, who is a distance runner and a bit of a fitness fanatic, said he is still getting better as a driver, even after almost 20 years of racing at the highest level of the sport.
“This is a place where you have to earn the respect of the fans, the other drivers and the people who run the sport. You earn that respect from Race1 to Race36, and we haven t done that yet. We ve won, and we ve been so close a few times, and I think we ll get em. It s hard to be overconfident when I was zero-for-462 at one point in my career. But I feel like I can continue to win.”
Waltrip, one of the tallest drivers in NASCAR at 6-5, said that because three of his four Cup wins have taken place on this track, Daytona is a place where he already knows what to do to put himself in Victory Lane.
“I come into Daytona with an unbelievable amount of confidence. I was thinking during testing , as silly as this seems, that I am in the midst of blazing the trail to winning my third Daytona 500. It s just that I have that much faith in my team and myself to get the job done.”
Darrell, the older brother and the more outspoken of the Waltrips, said Michael s three wins at Daytona in the past three years were long overdue. But he disagreed about what made the real difference and finally got Michael to the checkered flag.
“I said for years that he was the best driver out there who hadn t won a race,” Darrell said. “He just wasn t in the right situation. When Dale put Michael in that car, that did it. But it wasn t the car, it was the confidence. He s always been a great race car driver, but when Earnhardt picked him to drive Dale s car, Michael knew he was good - real good.”29.20358 -81.03941