On April 30th 1963, Michael Curtis was born to Margaret and Leroy Waltrip in Owensboro, Kentucky. With four older siblings - Darrell, Connie, Carolyn, and Bobby - he was, by far, the baby of the household. The Waltrips were well acquainted with racing fever prior to the birth of their youngest edition. Darrell, who is sixteen years Michael's senior, had started his racing career with go-karts four years before Michael came onto the scene. The oldest Waltrip was already worthy of earning his later nickname, "Jaws", (which Cale Yarborough gave him in 1977). Darrell mouthed off at race tracks across Kentucky. In the next few years, Darrell would take his mouth and his talent nationalwide, and would become one of the most famous racers in NASCAR history.
"I have a theory in life that I don't worry about anything I can't
control. Like the Bible says, worry about nothing and pray about everything."
~ Michael Waltrip
While his brother became a household name, Michael spent his childhood in the small town of Owensboro. His home life, however, was anything but typical.
"That's when I felt like the coolest kid in school," Michael said. "When my parents would come and get me and we were going to go watch my brother at the Daytona 500. I knew the significance of the Daytona 500 from the time I was in the first grade. No parents were coming and getting their kids for the Daytona 500." Every February, the Waltrips packed up the family car and drove fifteen hours to Daytona Beach, where they would stay for Speedweeks.
Michael watched in awe as his brother won race after race. "Wherever we would go, Darrell would win. If he didn't win, you were thinking 'What's wrong, why didn't Darrell win?' That was my knowledge of racing when I was a kid."
Watching his brother's career drove Michael to aspire to become a racer himself. "Darrell has been an inspiration to me," Michael said. "I've been watching him race ever since I was alive. I was his biggest fan. He was my hero. I just wanted to be like him. I had that instilled inside me since the beginning. I didn't wonder what I was going to do. I didn't wonder how you make a turn. I watched it. It was burning inside me."
Michael started his racing career in elementary school, right there in the school yard with his bike. According to Michael, "I'd organize 400 lap bicycle races around the school. We'd go over there and play in the playground. I would try to convince everybody that it would be a good idea to run 400 laps around the track instead of two or three." Confidence raced through his veins, as he was bent on leaving each race the winner. He did everything he could to follow in his big brother's footsteps; he even came close to earning the nickname "Jaws" himself with his trash-talking in the schoolyard. His sister, Connie, says that Michael was a real pest.
When Michael was 10 or 11 years old, he turned his attention to racing go-karts. He called big brother Darrell and asked him for some money to buy his first go-kart, but DW turned him down. Michael said that he didn't get a lot of help from his brother starting out. "Darrell basically looked at me and said, 'I'm going to show you how to do this. I'm going to be out winning races and championships along the way, and if you can't take your last name and make it on your own, then you don't want it bad enough, and you don't deserve it.' I think that was his philosophy. So, I learned real fast that he wasn't helping me any, so I never expected it and I tried to learn to make it without him."
Michael saved up the money on his own and bought his first go-kart at the age of 12; however, he didn't have anywhere to put it. He wanted to keep it at home, but his parents would not allow it. Michael recalled their telling him, "You ain't keeping it here. We don't want to have anything to do with your having it." Michael asked DW, who also turned him down. The Green family initially helped out where Michael's own family would not.
Michael's first go-kart race was in Olney, Illinois, through the Southern Indiana Racing Association (SIRA). The track was a road course, which Michael enjoyed. He was running the same type of go-kart as the Green boys, but he experienced mechanical troubles with his ride. His friend, 13 year old Jeff Green, came to the rescue. Jeff disassembled the carburetor and repaired the go-kart right on the track. Michael went on to win that day, thanks to his buddy.
Throughout junior high and high school, Michael competed in go-kart events. He also excelled at other sports as a teenager. He was the captain of his high school's tennis team, and only lost two singles matches throughout the two seasons that he played. Michael still enjoys tennis today, but has always had his heart set on racing.
With Michael's graduation from high school came his step up from go-karts to mini-stocks. In 1981, he ran his first Mini-Modified event at Kentucky Motor Speedway, which was the same quarter-mile track where DW got his start. Michael took home the victory in his very first race, just as he had done five years ago in his go-kart. "Newt Moore, who is now crew chief for [Ken] Schrader, towed from Nashville to Kentucky Motor Speedway in Owensboro," Michael recalled. "I went out and broke the track record. We had practiced and had a cool car, the Mountain Dew No. 11, just like Darrell's [Winston Cup car]. After I went out and broke the track record, Newt went out and broke the track record, so he was the fastest qualifier. There were four of us in the trophy dash and I started third, he started fourth. I got the lead first - it was only like five laps - then he passed me and won the trophy dash. In the heat of the race, same deal. I get through the traffic, lead the race, then he passes me and wins the heat. In the feature, I get out there and I'm leading. I would pay no telling what for a video of this, but I'm sure there isn't one. But in the feature I get the lead and he passes me. I don't remember how but I passed him back and won my first feature event, but I never will forget my dad being there and what a big night it was. Mini-Modifieds, 1981, at Kentucky Motor Speedway. I went on to win the championship that year."
The same year that his brother picked up his first Winston Cup Championship, Michael became the KMS track champ in the Mini-Modifieds division after winning six races that season. He was beginning to earn respect as a racer from his family. People were starting to take the young Kentucky native seriously when he told anyone who asked, and "several who didn't want to know", that he was going to be a professional race car driver.
Michael moved on to the Baby Grand Series (later known as Goody's Dash, now IPower Dash) in 1982, while DW worked on his second WC Championship. Michael's first sponsor was Komfort Koach; Darrell helped organise this deal with the Louisville, KY, van company. He swept the 1983 championship, and was voted the most popular driver that year and the next. He won four races and earned fourteen top-10's and six poles in 32 races with the Baby Grand Series.
"When I started," Michael said, "I was good at it from the beginning. I started racing when I graduated high school in 1981. I raced at my local track and won the track championship there. I ran the Goody's Dash Series and won the championship in 1983. If you'd have told me I wasn't the next Mario Andretti, I'd have told you you were crazy. I'd been successful in everything I'd done."
Michael didn't rest on his laurels. In 1984, when he was barely eighteen years old, he left his home in Owensboro for bigger and better things. Michael journeyed to North Carolina, where he moved in with his friend, Kyle Petty. Kyle was still living at home with his father - the king - Richard Petty.
Michael's living with the Pettys led to tension within his family. Darrell and Richard were long-time rivals on the track; DW later confessed that Richard was "where I wanted to be". Darrell relayed the following about Richard's influence on his little brother:
When I think about experience and learning from your elders, I always think about my brother Michael. He was living with the Pettys at the start of his Winston Cup career, and he was sitting on the couch, eating popcorn, with Richard Petty one night.
Richard asked Michael, "Where did you learn what you know about racing?"
Michael said, "Everything I know about racing, I learned from my brother Darrell."
Richard replied, "Then you don't know too much about racing, do you?"
Richard Petty taught the youngest Waltrip a different brand of racing than Michael had grown up knowing. Over the years, Michael would learn from many of the greats, but, at the time of its inception, this mentorship plagued DW the most.
In 1985, 23 year-old Michael Waltrip made his Winston Cup debut at the World 600 in Charlotte. He qualified 19th. After running 500 miles, the transmission of his #23 Mell-Gear Pontiac failed. That ended Michael's first Winston Cup race. Although he was unable to complete the event, he finished 25th. [5/30/03 - One source states that he qualified 24th and finished 28th, but Michael states otherwise in a recent article.] Michael drove a total of five races that season for car owner Dick Bahre. This was the same year that Darrell would earn his third and final Winston Cup Championship.
Michael's official rookie season began the following year. Again, he drove for Dick Bahre, who would later form Bahari Racing. His primary sponsor that year was Hawaiian Punch. Competing in all 28 races, he finished 19th overall, and was second place in rookie standings. Alan Kulwicki beat him out for Rookie of the Year.
In 1987, Michael started driving the #30 All-Pro Chevy Monte Carlo. They had gone with the #30, because Dominos was slated to sponsor the team. At the time, Domino's slogan was "thirty minutes or less, or your money back." Dominos never sponsored the car, but Michael stuck by the number. He held onto it in 1988, when car owner Dick Bahre sold Bahari racing to Chuck Rider and Lowrance Harry. Country Time/Kool-Aid signed as Michael's sponsor. He came close to a win that year with a second place finish at Pocono.
Michael's racing interests expanded in 1988 when he started taking part in select Busch Grand National Series through Bahari Racing. His first BGN race was the Tri-City Pontiac 200 at Bristol Motor Speedway. Later that year, he won his first series race at Dover International Speedway in Darrell's car. This was the first time that Michael had ever been allowed to drive any of his big brother's vehicles. [For more details, click here]
On September 17, 1989, Michael won at Dover again; this time, he drove his own car. He also picked up four poles and eight top-10's in fourteen Busch Series races that season. Michael started catching the eye of some of his brother's admirers.
"He's a taller version of his brother Darrell who shows tremendous potential," said Nascar Winston Cup track owner, Humpy Wheeler. "He's a thinking man's racer."
Steve Waid, columnist for the newspaper Winston Cup Scene, expressed similar sentiments. "Michael's on the verge of breaking out and becoming a Winston Cup star. He's gained a foothold in the sport with team owner Chuck Rider and has the tools he needs."
While Michael was impressing folks with his skills, he suffered misfortune the next season. On April 7th, 1990, Winston Cup veteran Bill Elliott witnessed what he said was "the worst single car wreck I have ever seen". That single car was Michael's #30 Kool-Aid Pontiac. At a BGN race in Bristol, Tennessee, Michael lost control of the car coming off turn two, and the right side door slammed into a concrete wall. Debris flew across the backstretch as Michael's Pontiac flipped end-over-end down the track. When it came to rest in the infield, the car was little more than a roll cage.
"When I saw it, I didn't think there was any way a driver could survive," said Elliott. Many people had the same thought, including Michael's big brother, who was watching from the pits.
Darrell ran to the wreckage, and pulled up what was left of the roof. He could see Michael's feet dangling over the ground, with no floorboard beneath. DW's eyes met with his brother's, and the younger Waltrip asked what was the matter. Michael climbed from the car unscathed, and went on to race the Winston Cup feature the following day.
From that time on, Michael and Darrell drew closer to one another. The two were beginning to recognise just how precious life is. Michael was a new father at the time - Caitlin Marie Waltrip was born on January 12, 1990 - and DW had a 2 1/2 year old toddler at home, (Jessica). These newest additions to the Waltrip clan were essential in mending the generation gap between Michael and Darrell. They were no longer just brothers, sixteen years apart; now they were fathers as well. From this time forward, they spent more time with one another, on and off the track.
"I watch out for him," Darrell said, "look for him. When he's running well, I'm pulling for him, and when he isn't I worry about him doing bad. I watch out for him, wish him well, hope he does good and help him out when I can."
1990 was also the year that NASCAR fans started picking up on Michael, and gaining the confidence in him that he'd had from the start. Picking up two more wins in the Busch Series this season, Michael now had four BGN victories under his belt. Running the #30 Pontiac, with Country Time and Maxwell House co-sponsoring, he picked up an impressive 3rd at Charlotte that year. He was 16th in the points that season, whereas he'd hovered around 18th to 20th in previous years. Michael also finished with five top 5's and ten top 10's.
Although Michael's on-track success was picking up speed, his primary sponsors would leave at the end of the season. Michael signed a three-year contract with Pennzoil in 1991, but held onto the sponsor until the end of the 1995 season.
In 1991, Michael out-did his performance from the previous year. He posted his first two Winston Cup poles, finished 15th in points, and picked up four top 5's and twelve top 10's. 1991 was also the first season in which Michael got to run in the Winston, a non-points race reserved for former victors. He did so by winning the Winston Open, a qualifying race that allows two additional drivers into the feature. Michael finished the Winston in 6th place.
Michael also ran select Dash Series events that year. In ten races, he earned five top-5's. After placing 4th at Hickory Speedway that season, he was invited to participate in the 1992 Goody's 300 at Daytona.
In 1992, Michael won his fifth BGN race at Darlington in the Gatorade 200. He also won the Winston Open again; however, this win frustrated him. Michael told reporters, "It's just not the same as winning a regular Winston Cup event." Overall, 1992 would not prove to be one of his best years. He ran well in competition, but quirky mechanical failures and accidents often took him out of races. He came out of the season 23rd in points.
Although 1992 hadn't been a good year for Michael, he had high hopes for the next season. 1993 started out well. In preseason testing at Daytona, Michael ran the second fastest, just behind Kyle Petty. This was the first year that Michael had a real shot at winning the Daytona 500. He ran strong throughout the race. Thirty laps from the end, however, an accident knocked him from 3rd to 16th. "The car was strong and we had a good engine," Michael told reporters. "We would have been in good shape if I hadn't messed up the front end. I think we could have gotten back up in the top 10. It was a lot of fun out there but we could have used a little luck."
A disappointing finish at Daytona did not dash Michael's hopes for the season. "There's no doubt in my mind this team has put everything together," he said. "We're as good a young team as there is in NASCAR and we know that first win is right around the corner." Michael's season improved. He got a third place finish at Talladega and fifth at Bristol.
Also that year, Michael purchased a 1979 Piper Navaho Chiefton that year, and hired pilot John Cloninger to fly it for him. The jet enabled Michael to more easily meet the demands of a stock car racer, helping him to get to the track and to driver appearances with better efficiency.
April of 1993 changed Michael's life. On April 1, 1993, Alan Kulwicki died in a plane crash. Alan and Michael had shared the same rookie year, and the two were friends. Alan's passing weighed heavily on Michael's mind two days later, when he won the BGN's Budweiser 250 at Bristol. He took the car around the track backwards, performing NASCAR's first Polish Victory lap in memory of Alan. That same day, during a televised interview in victory lane, Michael drew a young woman into his arms and held her. He introduced everyone to his girlfriend, Elizabeth "Buffy" Franks.
"Michael won the Busch race that night," Buffy recalled, "and when he did, I ran to victory lane to meet him. When he was giving his interview, he pulled me up there and said, 'This is my girlfriend, Buffy.' I thought he just wanted to kind of make it official that he had a girlfriend. He then said, 'I want to marry her one-day.' Benny Parsons said, 'Hey Michael did you just ask her to marry you?' Michael looked at me and said, 'Will you marry me?' I said yes and then Michael said he had the ring in the truck. I laughed so hard later because I knew he meant it was in the hauler. It sounded so funny to hear Michael say, 'Yeah, the ring's in my truck.' Michael had happy hour after that for the Winston Cup race, so I had to sit there at the hauler and wonder where my ring was until it was over. It was torture."
Michael also won the very next BGN event in which he participated. In the Champion Spark Plug 300 on May 29th at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Michael had to pit early, landing him in the back of the pack. He fought his way back to the front and passed race leader Ernie Irvan with 8 laps to go. Michael had fresher tires, which helped him to win the race. While his celebration could not match the won he had enjoyed during his last visit, Michael made it memorable. He stood on his head in front of the nose of his #30 Pennzoil Chevy in Victory Lane.
On November 27, 1993, Michael married Buffy. She moved into the 200 year old farmhouse where he was already living, in Sherrills Ford, North Carolina. The couple still live there today.
Michael finished the 1993 season 17th in the Winston Cup point standings. Professionally, the year was bittersweet. "It was a very interesting season for me," he expressed in 1994, "emotional at times. We got a slow start in the season but things started to get better toward the end of the year. Pennzoil will be back with us next year and I think if we can start off in Daytona where we are right now we'll have our first win in '94."
Michael's first Winston Cup win would not come in 1994; however, his performance this season surpassed his accomplishments in the previous one. He started the season with his 8th Busch Series poll for the Goody's 300 in Daytona. April of that year was also Michael's debut as a Busch Series car owner. Childhood friend Jeff Green piloted his car to a 3rd place finish the first time out of the box. In Winston Cup, Michael finished 6th in the Daytona 500, higher than he had ever previously finished that race. Michael was starting to prove that Daytona was his track. With a best finish of 3rd at Talladega in May and an outside pole at Charlotte in October, he finished 12th in points at the end of the year, the highest in his career.
In 1995, Michael duplicated that finish. He also won the Winston Open for the third time, and was able to run in the Winston. His season's best was third in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte; leading 9 laps in the event, he helped turn around Pontiac's bad luck. He also performed admirably at Darlington by finishing 5th at the Southern 500, after starting 25th. Michael was the top Pontiac racer in 1995; however, he was not the model driver that season.
During the Miller Genuine Draft 400 at Michigan in June, Michael showed a side of himself that he has rarely displayed publically. Late in the race, Michael was passing Lake Speed's #9 Spam/Melling Ford for position when the driver cut him off. Michael ran into the wall. His anger festered until the end of the race, when he cut off Speed's car on pit road, blocking the Ford's path. Michael jumped out of his #30 Pennzoil Pontiac and stormed over to the Spam car. Once he undid the window net, Michael slugged the driver twice in the head. Speed, who still had his helmet on, was okay; however, Michael's knuckles stung. NASCAR called Michael to the "big red truck" - a hauler where officials send drivers when they misbehave. Michael was fined $10,000 for 'actions detrimental to stock car racing'.
The remainder of Michael's 1995 season ran smoothly. In all, he made 4 top ten finishes and a top 5 at Darlington, where the car-make has always struggled. Pontiac finished second in manufacturer's points because of Michael, and he finished the season 12th in points. This would be his last season with Bahari Racing and the #30 Pennziol Pontiac.
Michael signed with the Wood Brothers in 1996, and would drive their #21 Citgo Ford for two years. Fans and commentators alike felt that Michael's move to the famed Virginian team would boost his on-track performance. The brothers had a long history of charging drivers' careers, dating back to the late 1950's with Glen Wood. Since then, they had won with drivers such as Parnelli Jones, Cale Yarborough, A.J. Foyt, Davey Allison, David Pearson, Neil Bonnett, Kyle Petty, and Dale Jarrett. The Woods Brothers, however, had not had a win since Dale Jarrett left the team in 1991. They hoped that Michael would bring the Wood Brothers back to victory lane.
Michael started his first season with the Wood Brothers with a 10th place finish in the Daytona 500. On May 18, 1996, he made the Winston for the fourth time by winning the Winston Open qualifying race. On this day, he won the Winston. He had come from the rear of the field - from the transfer position. In the twelve-year history of the Winston Select, no driver had ever won after getting into the event by qualifying in the Winston Open.
"The car was terrible in the Winston Open, they just kept working on it though and it kept getting better and better," Michael said. "It was absolutely awesome those last ten laps."
Nine laps from the finish, he soared past Dale Earnhardt and Terry Labonte and took the lead when the pair made contact in Turn 2. "I was just sitting there thinking this could be good for me. I am right where I need to be and darned if it didn't happen, and I hooked a left and once I got out in front they weren't going to cath me."
Although his efforts did not pay in Winston Cup points, Mikey earned $211,200. It was the largest amount of money that he had ever won in a race up to that point.
Busch Series racing changed for Michael in 1996. Because he was no longer with Bahari Racing - and no longer had his BGN ride with them - Michael started his own Busch Series team. He and his wife owned the #21 Bandaid Ford, which Michael ran with Roush engines in select races. The idea of owning his own race car had appealed to Michael for a long time.
"The reason I have a Busch team is because of Darrell," Michael said. "I always liked how he had a car of his own to fiddle with. He was off driving for Junior Johnson, but he had his own shop and had his own guys. It was something that I always looked at and thought one day that's what I want to do. So in '96 I started my Busch team and we've been successful, won some poles, and won some races."
In his first year with his new Busch Series team, Michael picked up three top 5's, four top 10's, and qualified on the pole after just ten races. In Winston Cup, he finished 14th with eleven top 10's and a top 5. He won over a million dollars for the first time that season.
In 1996, Michael also drove a Craftsman Truck Series race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. The CarQuest 420K was the last event of the CTS season. In Michael's first truck race, he finished 4th in his #1 MW Windows Ford F-150. He had started 27th. He also ran the 1997 season opener on Janurary 19th at Walt Disney World Speedway; however, an accident ruined his chances of dupicating last year's success. Although he started second in his Waltrip Motorsports Ford, he was out of the race before the halfway mark, and would place 31st.
Although 1997 began with frustration in the Truck Series, Michael's Winston Cup season started with a bang. Michael picked up five top 10's within the first nine races of the season. He placed 7th four times, two of which were back-to-back in March, at Atlanta and Darlington. He had also led at three different races during this time. This was the best he had ever performed in the first half of a season. He was 9th in points at the halfway mark; however, he would finish the season 18th.
September 27, 1997 marked the birth of Michael's daughter Magaret Carol, who is better known as 'Macy'. Since the birth of his and Buffy's first child together, Michael started making more sacrifices to be there for his family. "Every of day of my life is so special," he said, "just being able to watch her grow up and do new things. My life focuses around my family and my career now more than it ever has. I used to play golf, but it took away from my family so much that, except for charity events, I don't do that anymore."
Late in the 1997 season, Michael was testing the new Ford Taurus, which would replace the Thunderbird he was currently running. Meanwhile, rumours circulated that he might be leaving his Wood Brothers' ride. Jayski's Silly Season site, Nascar's most popular rumour mill, reported that, "according to sources close to the situation", Michael might be leaving the Wood Brothers to drive the #43 STP Pontiac of Richard Petty, who planned to retire from racing. The article also suggested that newcomer Elliott Sadler might replace Michael in the #21 car, although he was already under contract with Gary Bectel until the end of the 1998 season. The rumours did not abate when Michael resigned with the Wood Brothers in July. The gossip became so strong that Len Wood felt he should respond.
"We have heard the reports," Wood said, "but Michael says he's not leaving."
Despite this affirmation, Skip Wood of the Richmond Times-Dispatch printed just days later that inside sources believed that Michael would take Petty's ride next season, and that the Wood brothers would be okay with it, because it was a good ride.
Michael also continued in his Busch Series ride in 1997. In just sixteen starts, he picked up four top 5's, five top 10's, and a pole. He ran a total of three Truck races as well. Michael did not have much success with his self-owned truck in Martinsville. At the Hanes 250 in September, he ran just 59 of the 256 laps when his engine died - he finished 35th. Michael had a better experience in October. At the No Fear Challenge at the California Speedway, Michael finished seventh, despite started twenty-seventh.
In addition to Winston Cup, Busch Series, and Craftsman Truck racing in 1997, Michael competed in a Winston West event at Pikes Peak on July 27th. This was the first race he had ever run in the series, and he won, having led 186 laps.
Perhaps successes in the Busch and Truck series - and a win in Winston West - took Michael's mind off the disappointing ending to the 1997 Winston Cup season. He was optimistic going into 1998. "Knowing the dedication and commitment of Eddie and Len Wood and the whole Citgo team makes me proud to drive for them," Michael said. "This team never gives up and I'm confident we can have a productive season this year."
1998, however, was not one of Michael's best seasons in Winston Cup. He could not qualify his #21 Citgo Ford for the 1998 DuraLube / Kmart 500 at Phoenix International Raceway. This was the first time that the Woods Brothers' car had not qualified since 1971. Nonetheless, Michael raced that day. Dale Jarrett had fallen ill. No one was sure whether he had gallbladder problems or the flu; regardless, he was in no condition to race that day. He was even excused from the drivers meeting. Jarrett started the race anyway. By lap 15, he was telling his crew over the radio that he wasn't feeling well. On lap 52, Jarrett pitted under green. Michael, who was standing by, jumped into the #88 Quality Care Ford. He finished the race 20th.
Despite his inability to qualify for the Phoenix race, Michael finished the season 17th in points, with five top 5's.
1998 was Michael's 11th season in the Busch Series. He ran 15 races, with one top 5 and six top 10's. The high point of his season in BGN was 4th at Charlotte. Although he ran such a limitted schedule, Michael finished 34th in BGN point standings that year.
Michael also ran one Craftsman Truck race in July, where BandAid sponsored him. The No Fear Challenge took place at California Speedway, and would be Michael's last truck race to date. He experienced engine trouble after just after the halfway mark. He finished the race 31st.
In August of 1998, Michael told the press that he and the Wood Brothers would go their separate ways at the end of the year. This was just after he had finished 22nd in a Michigan race, three laps down. "We both agreed we should try something different," he said of the two parties severing their contract, despite Michael having signed a letter of intent. "But we've continued to struggle the last few races, and early last week I sat down with Eddie and Len and they were feeling the same thing that I was feeling."
As rumoured the previous year, the Wood Brothers brought in Elliott Sadler. Michael, however, did not take over driving duties for the #43 Pontiac, which now belonged to John Andretti. Instead, he signed with Jim Mattei, who had recently bought the #7 Philips Chevrolet team from car owner/driver Geoffrey Bodine. When Mattei bought the team, he was quite interested in the prospect that the young Waltrip would drive for him. "Michael has a lot of experience and a great passion for this sport," he said. "I consider him to be at the beginning of his career. I believe the kind of equipment he'll have with our race team, he'll be stepping up to a new level in Winston Cup competition."
Michael looked forward to joining the team. "Jim Mattei obviously is very committed to being successful, and that type of commitment is what I need," he said. "He recognizes the type of effort it takes to field a consistently competitive team." Perhaps the fact that the team had originally belonged to the late Alan Kulwicki also attracted Michael to the deal; some believe that he wanted to continue his friend's dream by driving Alan's car.
Philips, who had sponsored Geoffrey Bodine, stayed with the #7 team for 1999. Klaussner furniture also signed with the team, and would provide associate sponsorship for Michael in coming years. The Mattei team was also working closely with Sabco - sharing information and motors.
The new #7 team ran well out of the box. Michael finished the Daytona 500 that year with a solid 5th place showing. He also qualified on the front row for the Las Vegas 400 in March. The season as a whole, however, was his worst season to date. Twice in a race at Martinsville, he was in his pitbox when the caution flag flew, causing him to finish the race 33rd. Mechanical failures and accidents also led to Michael's finishing the year 29th in points.
Michael's performance in the Busch Series in 1999 contrasted greatly to that of Winston Cup. He switched to Chevrolet and to the #7 that year and, with BandAid as his new BGN sponsor, he experienced a great deal of success. In October, he won the All Pro Bumper to Bumper 300 at Lowe's Motor Speedway. Within fifteen BGN starts, he picked up three top 5's and eight top 10's.
Despite successes in the Busch Series, Michael's 1999 season ended on a bad note. As he had all season, Michael faced mechanical errors during the last race of the year - the Napa 500 in Atlanta. This one would be the worst. On lap 198, his car started leaking oil at turn 1. Michael spun in his own oil, and slammed into the outside wall. Terry Labonte's car also spun, and behind him, Rick Mast and Kenny Wallace bumped into each other while dodging wrecked cars. While cars raced back to the stripe, Jerry Nadeau came around the turn too fast, and swerved so he wouldn't hit Terry Labonte's car. Nadeau almost hit Terry's brother Bobby as he shot toward the infield. Meanwhile, Michael rammed into the inside wall. There his car stopped. He didn't move. Safety workers had to cut off the roof of the #7 Chevy to get Michael out of the car. He was conscious and alert when they pulled him out. Michael was taken to the infield care centre, then immediately airlifted to the hospital. Because Michael had lost consciousness in the wreck, doctors performed a battery of tests and X-rays to determine that he was okay. Michael was diagnosed with a mild concussion, and released that night. Thus ended his 1999 season.
2000 did not begin well for Michael. On January 10th, his father Leroy passed away at the age 76 after a three-year struggle with cancer. He had died without having seen Michael win a Winston Cup race.
By the beginning of the 2000 season, Michael had over 400 starts in the Winston Cup series, and had still never won an official points race. Reporters brutally threw this in his face week after week. "I deal with that as best I can," Michael said. "I want to win, but my life doesn't hinge on whether I do or not. Through my faith, I have an inner peace. I have a lot of things in my life figured out because of my faith. I'm thankful to God for putting me where I am today. It's a new team, a new season and a new millennium. Maybe I can win a race."
When reporters asked him how he could continue racing despite not having a win in his fourteen year Winston Cup career, Michael told them, "It's simple, I just love to race. I've got a great car and a great race team. I'm very fortunate to have the opportunity to do what I do. I don't think I'm due anything or owed anything, I just go out there and give it all I can give it. I feel like if I work at it hard enough, I'll be successful. I'll win one someday. I don't live my life by what happens on the track, but when I'm out there, I do the best I can each time I'm in the car."
Michael did his best, but mechanical failures and accidents just kept happening to him. In March, he was involved in the second worst wreck of his racing career. On lap 102 of the Busch Series' Daytona season-opener, two cars hit his #7 BandAid Chevrolet from behind, and sent Michael's car airborn. The #7 Chevy flipped onto its roof, then end-over-end down the front straightaway. Michael's car landed on the apron in a cloud of smoke by turn 1, rightside-up. Without help, Michael emerged from the car.
"I'm a big guy," Michael later said of the accident, "so I just hung onto the steering wheel and ducked my head. At first it wasn't bad. Then, it started hitting the ground pretty good. Thank the Lord, I'm fine. I'm not even hurt."
In April, Michael led a lap in the Goody's 500 in Martinsville, and finished 3rd - his best finish since 1995; however, he was unhappy with the outcome of the race. Six laps from the finish, Michael was fourth. He was running between Bill Elliott and John Andretti when Elliott tried to pass from the high side. Michael edged down the track to protect his position, and clipped the rear of Andretti's #43 car.
When reporters spoke to Michael after the race, he held his head in his hands. "I hate to have happen what did," he said. "I just hate that John got spun out. Bill Elliott drove down to the inside of me and I drove down to protect it and I ran into John, so I just wish I could enjoy this but I really can't right now because I know how I would've felt if it was me that put myself in position to finish well and someone spun me out."
"I'm down," Michael added. "It was unintentional but that doesn't help John any right now. It really hurts my heart that it happened, but it's happened to me a hundred times too. When you cram all these cars on this little track, stuff happens."
Michael continued to beat himself up over what happened to Andretti. "This is just a bittersweet thing. This sucks that that happened to John. I know what it means to this crew to have that team in contention to be in the top-2 or 3 at the end of these races. I'd just be a lot happier had I run fourth and John third and not been spun out.
"He's upset. I know how these guys would feel if we were running up in the top-5 all day long and someone spun me. I just can't tell you how bad it hurts me that that happened."
Around the same time, rumours were circulating that Mattei Motorsports would be selling the team. Michael addressed rumours the week after Martinsville, at Talladega:
There's certainly been a lot of talk about the team is for sale or the team has been sold. Any time there is that much talk it's not just rumor. There's something to it. How it gets distorted after that is just the way it goes -- he said, she said stuff.
As far as where I stand with the situation, I feel real comfortable that our team will stay intact and we'll race the rest of this year no matter if Jim owns it or sells it to someone. We have a contract for the rest of this year, but more importantly we have a verbal understanding and agreement that we're not going to mess with this team.
We're going to try to take this team, work on what we've been building on throughout the first eight races this year and let us see how good we can do. I have no intentions of making any decisions on 2001 right now because I'm so locked into what's going to happen this year.
Michael also expressed his optimism for coming races.
I want this year to work, and I want to do it with these guys. I like working with my team. Bobby Kennedy (crew chief) and Slugger (Labbe) and all the boys on the team have made this year -- despite a lot of problems in the first eight races -- quite enjoyable and made me very optimistic about the rest of the year.
All that matters to me is I'm going to get the opportunity to complete what I feel like is a very critical year for me. When I say complete it, I mean complete it uninterruptedly, and I have the confidence that's what's going to happen.
The talk doesn't distract me at all. I've heard it for a couple of weeks now and it doesn't affect the job that we do. As long as Bobby knows the team is not going to be broken apart or somebody comes in and tries to reinvent what we're doing, then he has the ability to communicate that to his employees, the fellows who work so hard on the car, and all that's been going on the whole team.
It doesn't matter to me at all. I've been involved in rumors before. It doesn't matter what people write or what people say. What matters is the people involved in it living up to the commitment they make. I feel like in this situation everybody will certainly do that and probably more."
Despite the rumours, Michael kept his mind on racing - both in cars and on feet. He had started running to stay in shape a few years ago and, on April 18, 2000, he ran the Boston Marathon. He finished 14,315th out of 17,813, and was the first person ever who raced this Marathon and the Daytona 500. Michael told reporters why he had run the race:
I did the Boston Marathon because I could. It's kind of like getting the chance to play Augusta National or something like that. If you get that kind of an opportunity, you about have to do it. I think it's just fun to do.
There is nothing at all that compares a marathon to what I do in the race car. Racing is my job and I'm very serious and very intense about it. I want to beat everyone on the track. I just did the Boston Marathon for the experience of it, to see what it's like to run through where all of those college kids are screaming and to come in at the end in front of all of the crowds. That is the sole reason I did it.
I don't put a competitive spin at all on my running, unless it is with myself. Nor do I compare running the Boston Marathon to running the Daytona 500 or vice-versa. One is for fun and the other, while I enjoy doing it and I love my job, there is a switch that goes on once I get into the race car that separates me and my focus from, say, the people who have done the Richard Petty Driving Experience. I have people who come up to me all the time saying, 'I've done the Richard Petty Driving Experience. I know what it's like for you.' Well, that's like me going up to one of those Kenyan dudes and saying, 'I know what it's like.' You don't know what it's like. I didn't do it for the same reason he did.
While auto racing is for his sponsors, crew, and fans - as well as himself - Michael found that running was solely for his own benefit. "To me, running is a private deal," he said. "I run all the time and I do it solely to stay in shape so I can drive my race car. I do it for the cardio-vascular benefits, to keep my weight where I want it for racing and for my personal health. I do it on the back roads of Sherrills Ford, not out in front of a lot of people.
"I know it's the nature of this world to ask, 'Where'd you finish?' Or 'How come 14,000 people beat you?' That's not what running is about to me. I have to be so competitive and so intense with my job that when I get out on the road (to run), I just run. I enjoy running. I do it for the fun of it."
While Michael felt personal success for finishing the Boston Marathon, he was feeling down when it came to racing. Heartache did not arise soley from bad finishes at events. On the heels of his father's recent passing were two deaths in the racing world. Adam Petty and Kenny Irwin Jr each died during practice sessions before two separate events at New Hampshire International Speedway, in May and in September. Both died in similar and unexplained accidents at turn 3 of the track. Racing deaths became a focus throughout the 2000 season.
"There's no good explanation why one wreck hurts somebody and another doesn't," Michael's wife Buffy told reporters. "When it's your turn, it's your time. That's how I have to live or I'd have 20 ulcers."
In May of 2000, Jim Smith became co-owner of Michael's ride, along with Mattei. Smith was already the full-owner of a Craftsman truck driven by Mike Wallace, who was current points leader. Smith and Mattei formed Ultra Mattei Motorsport. In July, the new team asked Michael to sign for another year with them. Three weeks later, he still hadn't signed the contract. That's when Michael got a call from his good friend, Dale Earnhardt.
"I had already told Buffy, 'I don't know. It doesn't feel right.' I had it (the contract) for three weeks when Dale called and said, 'I got it worked out. You want to come drive for me next year?' I said, 'Yeah. That's exactly what I'll do.'"
Michael was saying yes to an incredibly promising opportunity. Earnhardt had been a car owner since 1997, when he decided to form Dale Earnhardt Incorporated primarily so he could sign a gifted young driver named Steve Park. Earnhardt primed Park for Winston Cup by starting him out in the Busch Series, where Park became the most outstanding rookie the series had ever seen. Park swept rookie of the year honours, and moved onto Winston Cup the following, By the time Earnhardt asked Michael to join DEI, his young recruit had won at Watkins Glen and was 13th in points. Earnhardt's second driver, his son Dale jr, had driven Busch Series for him the year before, and now had two wins in Winston Cup. Earnhardt definitely had an eye for talent.
Michael recognised what Earnhardt's team had to offer. "I thought it was just what I needed," he said. "I thought that it was the answer to a prayer, that I could finally get with such a great team and be a part of such a wonderful organisation. I told people around me that there was no pressure going to drive for DEI the pressure is to ever gan an opportunity like that. I knew my ability was there to perform. I wasn't worried about performing. It was like a load off. It wasn't a load on. It was a load off my shoulders to get such a good car."
The grapevine had grown heavy with word of a third DEI team by May. Michael's name was also coming up frequently in these discussions. Once Mattei and Smith had formed Ultra Mattei Motorsports, folks speculated that Smith would want Mike Wallace to drive Winston Cup for the new team, and that Michael would be out of a ride. Ty Norris, head of DEI, had already expressed his disapproval of the creation of a third team; however, rumours were still strong by September, when Earnhardt announced that he would hold a press conference about the forming of a third DEI team. At 2 pm on the 11th, Earnhardt announced that Michael would join DEI in 2001, and that his current Busch Series driver Ron Hornaday would no longer drive for the team. Hornaday's sponsor, NAPA Auto Parts, would move up to Winston Cup and would sponsor the #15 Chevrolet, which Michael would drive.
"The NAPA Auto Parts Winston Cup team is another move for DEI in its efforts towards winning championships," said Earnhardt. "It takes the right combination to be successful. NAPA and DEI have had tremendous success over the years. When we decided to grow by adding another Winston Cup team they never hesitated to grow with us. It's a team effort and they've been a part of our team for six years. Michael was the final part of our newest team. I'm looking forward to having Michael around. We've been friends for many years and I know what he can do in a racecar. He's a talented driver that brings immediate experience to our program."
Michael also expressed his enthusiasm about the move to DEI. "This is going to be good," he told reporters. "Earnhardt is a fierce competitor that believes there's nothing good about second place. We've all seen it on the racetrack as a driver and now as a car owner. You want that in a car owner. I can't wait to work with these guys, it's kind of a 'who's who' list of people working at DEI. They've won races and championships and that's what I want to do, win races and bring another championship to NAPA and DEI."
He was also thrilled about his new sponsor. "I'm now an official member of the NAPA family. I've unofficially been donating to the family fund for quite some time. As a kid my hot rod wasn't so hot and it needed a new part every week. I'd go to the local NAPA store and find what I needed."
This announcement raised a lot of eyebrows. Because of Michael's results in the past two years, many NASCAR fans thought that Michael wasn't a good driver, and could not understand why Dale Earnhardt would want him for DEI. Michael had still not won a points Winston Cup race. His being the first driver to win the Winston from the transfer position in 1996 - and his various and outstanding accomplishments across the years - were lost on a number of fans who felt that Michael did not deserve this opportunity.
Michael didn't focus on what retractors had to say; instead, he relished the fact that Dale Earnhardt wanted him to drive for DEI. Michael reflected on Earnhardt's thinking in retrospect. "I think he looked at my career and said, 'Okay, boy, you've got a lot of talent; I think you can drive a race car as good as anybody, but you haven't done a very good job so far. I'm going to straighten this deal out for you.' I think that's the way he looked at it. I took it that way, and I think that's the way he looked at it, and I was looking forward to that leadership."
In pondering his career move at the time, Michael reasoned, "There are some times when you drive a race car when you know you don't have the equipment, the support that others have, and when that happens, it's easy just to crank it out and not aspire to be great. You have to be careful as you go down the road and work through your career; you have to learn to be quick to notice those times and not let that happen to you. It's very easy to do."
Michael's wife Buffy was thrilled that her husband would drive for Dale Earnhardt. "He started instilling confidence in Michael emotionally. He constantly told Michael that he would win, that he was required to win. The whole off-season he talked to Michael like that. Michael went to Daytona knowing he had a good chance."
His new teammates were also excited about Michael joining DEI. Junior reflected on his father and Michael's friendship, and Michael's move to DEI. "I felt like the son kind of hanging around and aggravating them, but it was pretty neat to hang out with Michael. And then when they talked about him driving for us I was like, 'Wow, that would be great. We'll be teammates. We'll be just like buddies.'"
Word got out that Michael might drive for DEI in 2000 in Phoenix, as well as the last two races of the season. Beliefs ran high that this possibility would become a reality until November, when RPM 2Night reported that Michael would most likely stay with the #7 team for the rest of the year, because of his contract with him. But, just in case, DEI had cars that Michael could drive in the last two races of the season - one sponsored by Napa at Atlanta, the other by Aaron's Rent at Homestead.
Michael finished the season 27th in points. As disappointing as that was for him, Michael's sights lay ahead. Once again, he was confident about his future, now that Dale Earnhardt had hand-picked him to drive for the team that Earnhardt owned. Michael spent the off-season acclamating to his new team, and preparing his mind, body, soul, and car for the upcoming season. "Those were a fun three months, preparing for the 2001 season and beyond," Michael said. "I'm glad I had that time working with Dale."
Michael marked the turning of another page in his life by running another marathon at the end of the year. In December, he ran in the inaugural Hop's Marathon by the Bay in Tampa, Florida. He finished 1209th, out of 3200 entrants.
While 2001 marked Michael's first year with a new team, it was also the first year that he would race Winston Cup as the only Waltrip in the field. Darrell had retired after the 2000 season, dubbing it his 'Victory Tour 2000'. He had run with that message on the hood of his #66 Ford. Darrell had looked forward to the end of his racing career. "It'll be a relief," he said during the 2000 season. "I've been anguishing about it, knowing this day would come. It should have come earlier. These last seven, eight years have been brutal... I think NASCAR should make a mandatory age of 50, and that way drivers like me wouldn't keep hanging on."
Darrell contemplated what the 2001 season would be like for himself, when he took on his new job as a race-day commentator on FOX. "I'll be up in the booth, talking about racing, instead of down on the track actually racing. I guess that's when it'll really hit me -- when I get to Daytona in February and for the first time since I was 12 years old I won't be working on my car and getting ready to go racing. It'll sink in then that it's finally over. It's gonna hurt."
Darrell could never have predicted what would happen that day - February 18th, the 2001 Daytona 500. Ward Burton led throughout early stages of the race, but on lap 173, he was involved in a 19-car crash. He had been soaring down the backstretch when Robby Gordon got into his rear fender. Burton spun into Tony Stewart, and sixteen other cars plowed into the trio. Within the cloud of dust and sheet metal, Stewart's #20 Home Depot Pontiac slammed into the wall and went airboarn. It bounced off Jeff Gordon's Chevy, flipped in the air, and landed on top of teammate Bobby Labonte's Pontiac. Stewart was unconscious after the wreck, and had to be taken out on a stretcher. He was airlifted to a local hospital, where he was diagnosed with a concussion.
Michael was out front when the accident unfolded, and therefore was not involved. The race restarted with 21 laps to go, when Michael fought his way back to the front. On lap 184, he took the lead. Dale Earnhardt Jr, his new teammate, lined up behind him, and Earnhardt rode in third. They ran in 1-2-3 DEI formation.
"I was really aggressive," Michael said. "I knew if they passed me, it was going to be tough. I had Junior and Dale back there and I knew they would wait until late. So I just started playing the game and hoped that I could hold them off."
Emotions ran high in the commentator's booth as the laps wound down to the end. Michael was still in the lead, with Junior pushing him, and Earnhardt fending off the competition. On the final lap, Darrell dropped the air of a commentator. "You got it, Michael!" He shouted to Michael from the booth "You got it!"
DW's eyes were filling with tears as the DEI teammates - led by his brother - rounded turn 4. Earnhardt was warding off Sterling Marlin for third as he went around the bend. The two cars touched. Earnhardt slammed head-on into the outside wall, then collided with Ken Schrader's oncoming Pontiac.
The checkered flag flew, and the #15 Napa crew errupted in cheers. Darrell hooted and hollered from the commentator's booth.
Michael emerged from his car in victory lane. An incredulous expression graced his face, and as he raised his arms over his head in triumph, it turned into a smile. After 463 career starts, Michael Waltrip had his first official win.
"How much better does one-for-463 sound?" Michael asked. "I do know this. Me and my brother have both won the Daytona 500!"
Michael and Darrell were the first siblings ever to both win the event. Brimming with joy, Michael gushed in victory lane, "I'm just so thankful for everything Dale's done for me and now we do this and this is how it all turns out. It doesn't all seem exactly right at this moment for me.
"All this would be a dream if it wasn't for Dale Earnhardt," Michael continued. "I think he might have been in a wreck. I don't even know. I hope he's okay."
"When I got to victory lane," Michael later recalled, "I just couldn't wait until I felt that big grab on the back of my neck and I was going to turn around and see Dale grinning. I kept waiting and I kept waiting and I kept waiting. ... and it never came."
It never came because Dale Earnhardt had died in that wreck, in the last lap of the race, while defending Michael's shot for the win. Earnhardt never saw the new DEI driver's first win. He had died instantly, before Michael crossed the finish line.
"They were all giving me praise and congratulations for winning the race," Michael said of the fans. "That was a special feeling. I didn't know that Dale had been injured or anything. I think I was in a daze."
That daze broke when Ken Schrader approached Michael in victory lane, carrying a gaunt expression. Schrader informed Michael that Earnhardt was badly injured. The celebration ended there, when the race winner sat down in victory lane and cried.
Darrell learned the news around the same time his brother did. He recalled the moments following the wreck, when he had revelled his brother's first win. Every so often during the brief celebration, Darrell had glanced at Earnhardt's wreck, and had said, "Dale's okay, isn't he?"
"I'll always second guess myself at that instant," said Darrell. "Should I have gotten off of Michael winning the Daytona 500 and turned my attention to Dale?"
Within five minutes, victory lane festivities had come and gone. As he walked away, Michael explained, "The only reason I won this race was because of Dale Earnhardt. He wasn't in victory lane. I just pray that he's okay. My heart is hurting right now. He was so helpful to me and this is how it all turns out. It doesn't seem quite right to me."
More than two hours later, at 6:55 pm, NASCAR president Mike Helton addressed the infield media center, who were all waiting for word on Earnhardt's condition. Helton was forced to make "one of the toughest announcements I've had to make." In a soft voice, he said, "After the accident in turn four ... we've lost Dale Earnhardt."
Many people blamed Marlin for Earnhardt's death; however, Michael does not agree. "It's my opinion that was just a racing incident," he said the next day. "Sterling didn't do anything wrong. Sterling was simply racing. And when the checkered [flag] is waving nobody is going to let off. When they rubbed, I'm sure Sterling didn't think Dale would wreck, or he would not have rubbed him.
"I don't think that wreck looks like anything other than guys just wanting to get to the checkered," Michael continued. "I believe that in my heart. They made contact, no denying that, but I didn't see that being anyone's fault."
Michael grieved Earnhardt's death in his own way. During the first week, he did so by talking about the fallen driver. "It's my personal preference to talk about Dale this week. Next week I'll talk about the Daytona 500 win. But this week is for him." Racing that season continued without one of its legends. Earnhardt's widow, Theresa, was now car owner of the #1, #8, and #15. Michael expressed that "being back at the race track is a good thing for us, it’s a good thing for our crew. It’s a good thing for our family. When we walked into the garage area, and we were back in our element. We were doing the things we’ve done for so long. I’m glad we’re here. I think it’s going to help get the healing process on down the road a bit further."
Michael helped Junior through this difficult time as well. "He likes spending time with me occasionally because it makes him feel closer to his dad, because we were friends," Michael said. "And in my case, it's not a whole lot different. It helps me to fill a void sometimes. I can't talk to Dale anymore, but Dale Jr. is so much like him that it's almost like talking to him." He also helped fans to heal by writing a letter with his wife Buffy that was addressed to the fans.
Earnhardt's death profoundly affected the 2001 season. Michael struggled with racing his first season at Dale Earnhardt Incorporated without the man himself. "It was hard to handle," Michael said, "because it was my opinion that this was Dale's project. He was going to start this team and make it work. He was going to run this team. It didn't work out that way, and it just changed everything, and it was sad."
After the tragedy, the racing community worked to prevent something so horrible from ever happening again. NASCAR considered requiring racers to wear head and neck restraints - either the HANS device or the Hutchins. Michael tested with the HANS at Atlanta, and wore it for the first time at Las Vegas, before NASCAR began mandating its use. Some drivers complained about having to wear the device; however, Michael wasn't one of them. "I don't have any reservations about the HANS as far as the way it fits and the way it wears in the car," Michael said. "I haven't hit anything yet with it on, but it sure does feel safe when you have it on. I didn't have any problem with it. I actually like it a lot. I like it better than without it. I put it on and I loved it. And I've had it on every time I've been in the car since [testing with it in Atlanta last week].
"I just feel like we owe it to our families," he continued, "we owe it to ourselves, we owe it to each other to do whatever we can do. If the research shows that that thing will make it safer, then we've at least got to try it and give it a whirl. And if you put it on and it doesn't work ... I just don't understand it. To me, it's perfect."
Safety devices could not protect DEI from the rollarcoaster season that lay ahead. Junior crashed on the first lap at Rockingham, during the Winston Cup race the week after his father's death. Meanwhile, Michael's team did not fare well. Crew chief Scott Eggerton left the team early in the year, and DEI technical director Steve Hmiel filled in, until the team could find a replacement. While Hmiel had the knowledge and experience to be a crew chief, he also came into a new team knowing that he would only be there temporarily. Furthermore, he still had responsibilities to DEI as the tech director, and could not devote his full attention to the team. Having a new crew chief was not the only shake-up within the #15 Napa team; jackman, tire changers, and carriers also changed. Michael did not perform well on the track during this period of instability. Barring his Daytona victory, his best finish during the first half of the season was 13th at Las Vegas. In the first 11 races of the season, Michael had fallen from first to twenty-sixth in points.
"I was lost, basically," Michael recalled. "I didn't like where I was, didn't like how I felt, and I didn't like my attitude heading to the race track every week. I had always just asked for a chance, and I was sitting there with a wonderful chance. Dale Jr. is hauling the mail and Steve's running good and I'm struggling."
DEI's first driver fared much better on the track. Steve Park spent the first half of 2001 carrying on Dale Earnhardt's legacy. Park proved Earnhardt's impact on the racing world immediately by winning at Rockingham the following week.
For the first time, Michael knew what it was like to have a teammate win. He was so excited that he drove right over to the #1 Pennzoil Chevy. Park later recalled, "I almost ran into him because I was crying so hard." Michael drove his car alongside Park's, so that the driver's sides were touching. He reached out and gave his teammate a high-five.
“Emotions were all over the place yesterday," Park expressed the day after the race. "We were just so excited to be able to win that race for Dale and start the healing process at Dale Earnhardt Inc. that we’ve all been longing for. It’s just been an incredible ten days. To be able to win that race in the fashion that we did has hopefully lifted the spirits here at the shop and at DEI."
Within the next seven races, Park placed 2nd at Darlington and Martinsville and was fourth in the point standings. By the halfway point of the season, he managed to lift the spirits of teammates Michael and Junior. On July 7th, the pair brought the 1-2 DEI finish back to Daytona. Junior won the Pepsi 400, and had conquered the track that had taken his father's life earlier that year.
Michael reflects on how the race ended. "When I got there, there were two to go. Quite frankly, I was thankful. At the end of the race, I just pushed him. I am just so thankful that he won, first of all, and that I was able to fight my way up through there and run second so I could be part of his celebration."
Michael had pushed Junior to the win to pay back a favour. "I know the commitment and the loyalty and the patience that he had to show in the Daytona 500 in 2001 when he and his father and I stuck together to make sure we won the race for DEI. I came back here in July and returned a push to him late in the race to assure that he would get to victory lane."
While Junior slowed from doing doughnuts in the infield, Michael pulled his #15 Napa Chevy alongside the #8 Budweiser car. Junior climbed onto the hood of Michael's car, where the two embraced. Crew members circled around the car, and fans pressed themselves against the fence, all cheering.
"This is what it's all about," Michael said to Junior on the roof of the #15 car. "It don't get no better."
The win reminded Michael of the Daytona 500, when Junior had helped him win the race. "Now I know what Dale felt like at Daytona. I just wanted to keep everybody off Dale Jr.'s back."
Junior was thrilled that Michael had joined him in victory lane that day. "I've always wanted that relationship with Michael," he said, "to be friends and be able to hang out and do the things that him and Dad did together. So, it was pretty cool when we won that race together and how we've kind of teamed up over the past couple of restrictor-plate races to get to victory."
From victory lane, Junior declared, "This is the perfect day. I know he would have loved it."
The second Pepsi 400 that season took place a month later, at Michigan International Speedway; however, the event was far from perfect. On August 18th, Michael was running Happy Hour the day before the race when he wrecked just three minutes into the practice session. His car got loose coming around turn 4, and spun. The driver's side of his #15 Chevy slammed into the outside wall. His car burst into flames, and he was pinned inside. Michael fought to unhook his restraints. Once free, he pounded out the passenger's side window, and pulled himself halfway out. A safety worker pulled him out of the car.
Teammate Steve Park had already pulled over, and was halfway out of his own car. "When I came around the corner," Park recalled, "and I saw my friend in a crash and I saw fire, it was natural instinct to get out to try to help him. When I stopped, I could see Michael struggling to get out and my concern was the driver's window was against the wall and that he might have been tangled in something.
"Nowadays, we all wear the HANS or something, and our seats are bigger, so I didn't know if he was caught up in something or not. The safety crew did a fine job, I just could see Michael struggling so I wanted to help. By the time I got unhooked and started to get out of my car, he was clear."
Michael was fine. He finish out the last ten minutes of Happy Hour in his back-up car, and competed the next day in the Pepsi 400. Although he completed the race without a mishap, he finished 36th.
The following month brought a fiercer misfortune than Michigan Happy Hour. The friend and teammate who was so eager to help Michael in his wreck would suffer his own, one that would end Park's amazing season. During a Busch Series event at Darlington on September 1st, Park was involved in a bizarre and horrific accident under yellow flag conditions. On lap 19, he was driving down the backstretch - preparing to restart - when his car jerked toward the inside wall. Before Park's #31 Whelen Monte Carlo got to the wall, Larry Foyt ran into the driver's side. Foyt had been running the inside line during the caution lap, with the other lapped cars. He had nowhere to go, and hit Park's car head-on. After the crash, neither driver got out of their cars; Foyt, however, put down the window netting. Safety workers put blue tarp around the #1 Pennzoil Chevy, which indicated a serious injury that they didn't want the public to see. It took them twenty minutes to cut away the roof of the #30 car, and to extract Park, who was alert and conscious.
While Foyt came away with bruising, Park's injuries were much more severe. He sustained a serious concussion and bruising to the left side of his neck, which led to headaches, blurred vision, and slurred speach. Park had to stop racing indefinitely until he recovered. Kenny Wallace took over the driving responsibilities of Park's #1 Pennzoil Chevrolet.
In two of the three races following Park's injury, Michael got into accidents. That month, he was 27th in Winston Cup standings - the lowest in points than any other former Daytona 500 winner. Rumours were beginning to circulate that NAPA was displeased with Michael's ontrack performance. People also reasoned, if car owners were dropping such drivers as Mike Skinner and Jeremy Mayfield when they were more consistent, then DEI should also drop Michael. His ontrack performance for the remainder of 2001 was inconsistent; he finished mostly between 20th and 40th.
On October 3rd, National Speed Sports News printed that "Michael Waltrip is rumored to be considering retirement. Waltrip is said to be in contact with broadcast executives about possible employment that would take him out of the driver's seat." Some people believed that Kenny Wallace would drive the #15 car in 2002. Despite such talk, DEI stressed that Michael was staying with them. "As of today, he still has a job for next year," DEI vice president Ty Norris said. "We have not talked about next year and he has not told us he wants to go into broadcasting, but with him being just thirty-eight years old, I can't really see retirement being an option." Norris also told reporters that DEI had spoken with Michael three times that year about improving ontrack performance, and had encouraged him to work harder. Meanwhile, Michael announced that he might not run his Busch Series car the next year, and many people continued to think that he would retire and go into broadcasting in 2002.
Gossip continued to fly, and Michael's future remained in the news. The Fox Sports Net show, Totally NASCAR, announced that he would definitely drive the #15 car in 2002, but that things had to change, specifically Michael's attitude and how he works with his team. Otherwise, DEI would not renew their contract with him for 2003.
During the race weekend at Lowe's Motor Speedway that month, DEI employees reportedly scoped out the garage area for new drivers, and were particularly interested in Jeremy Mayfield, Johnny Benson, and Kenny Wallace. The story was run in the Winston-Salem Journal. At this point, Theresa Earnhardt had had it. She held a team meeting and told the crew that her late husband had signed Michael for two years, and she would honour Dale's wishes. Sources within the team report that Theresa then spoke with Michael privately to help him refocus.
Throughout the remainder of 2001, Michael learned something that would ultimately turn around his career. "When I went to work for DEI, I really learned a valuable lesson in 2001. It doesn't matter how great your team is and how great your resources are, you have a relationship with your team and your crew. You have to be a leader as a driver. You and your crew chief have to be on the same page. You have to respect each other and admire each other. Through most of 2001, I didn't have that."
Michael didn't realise that he had a communication problem until his wife approached him in September and told him. "You are a great race car driver," Buffy said, "but you are a rotten communicator. In order for the world to be able to know what a great race car driver you are, you have to work on your people skills. You've got to be more of a communicator. You've got to be one of the guys."
Michael began to recognise that, although he excels at engaging audiences, cracking jokes, and making people smile, he had difficulty with one-to-one relationships. "I never thought I was better than anyone," he said. "I don’t do personal relationships well. That probably has hurt me throughout the years in my career."
Buffy's talk with Michael allowed him to turn things around on the track. "With help from her," he said, "in recognizing it, and then in getting a guy like I felt like I could work with, getting Slugger, I finally put myself in an environment where we could communicate. We were able to understand each other and get headed in the right direction. We see what it takes for me to be successful. Now we’ll just keep on doing that."
Michael ended the 2001 year successfully with a 2nd place finish at Homestead in November. Teammate Junior was proud of Michael's finish. "Good for Michael!" he said after the race. "That team has struggled, but after a few personnel changes, they've really been good lately. During one of the yellow flags, I was right behind Michael and I wished I could have talked with him on the radio, I could tell he was really running good, and I'll bet he was having fun and must have been in a really good mood."
Junior was wrong. "I told my PR person I wasn't a racecar driver anymore", Michael said after the season concluded.
Michael had a relaxing offseason. When the next season began, he was ready to race. "I'm glad to be back at Daytona," Michael said. "It's just where I want to be. I don't like answering a lot of questions about it and I'm not going to. But I'm very balanced and emotionally centered on what I'm here for. That's a good feeling."
Michael was a favourite to win. He stepped onto the track with a team with which he had already worked and succeeded. Just being there made him feel more confident. "I'm walking into Daytona with the same attitude I imagine Jeff Gordon has," Waltrip said. "I haven't checked with him to see where he's at, but I know where I'm at. "When I went into Daytona last year," he said, "it was the best chance I had to win the Daytona 500. Now, this is the best chance I've ever had to win it. It feels good to walk around here as the Daytona 500 champion, but it feels better to know I have a real good chance to do it again."
"My brother should be able to win a lot of races," Darrell said. "He'd have won a lot of races [in 2001] if it hadn't been for what happened here [to Earnhardt] in February. It broke that kid's heart. And he had to deal with that all year, and it's been hard for him. I think you'll see a lot of good things out of him this year. He's got the walk, he's got the attitude and he's got the genes, too."
Michael qualified fourth for the Gatorade 125's, a set of races that determine starting position for Daytona. Because his finish in qualifying was an even number, Michael ran the second Gatorade 125 that year. He took the lead on lap 4, and held onto it throughout the race, blocking competitors such as Tony Stewart for the win. Michael beamed in victory lane. Somebody passed him his four year old daughter Macy, whom he held in his arms. As reporters attempted to interview him, Michael spoke to his little girl in a soft, sweet voice. "We won, honey!" He told her with a grin. He went on to finish fifth in the Daytona 500.
The second race of the season was at Lowe's Motor Speedway, and marked Michael's 500th career start. He became the 23rd driver to ever accomplish this feet. That week, he tested with DEI at the track, where Steve Park joined himself and Junior in the #1 car. Park had significantly improved since his brain injury in September. Although he had slurred speech, and now needed eye glasses, Park was preparing to go back to Winston Cup racing, and had turned several successful test sessions. NASCAR officials watched the DEI drivers as they soared around the track.
"We were wide open, and our lap times showed we weren't holding anything back," Park said. "I know I can race now. I just want to make sure when I come back I can be in a position to win."
After the test session, officials cleared Park to race. He returned to racing the fifth race of the year at Darlington, the site of his accident. Park led the race early on, before Stacy Compton's lapped car took him out in Turn 4 on lap 38. He was uninjured, and completed the remainder of the race.
Now that Park had returned to DEI, Kenny Wallace did not have a Winston Cup ride. When he signed with DEI at the beginning of the year, Kenny realised that he would only race the #1 Pennzoil Chevrolet until Park's return. Michael remembered his former DEI teammate. He thought about how well Kenny had performed in that #1 car, and how the youngest Wallace brother had helped out his friend Park. In return, Michael decided to help Kenny. He offered Kenny a Winston Cup ride in April in Talladega. Michael had a car that he used for aerodynamics testing that he had sent through the wind tunnel a number of times. Aaron's Rent, his Busch Series sponsor, had agreed to sponsor Michael's #98 car at Talladega. They would also sponsor both the Busch and Winston Cup races.
"I am blessed to have a wonderful sponsor in Aaron's," Michael said. "They love NASCAR racing and NASCAR fans and have chosen NASCAR as their main source of spreading the word of their company's products. I didn't think twice about making this happen for a sponsor like Aaron's. Michael Waltrip Racing, supported by Dale Earnhardt Inc. will give Kenny a legitimate opportunity to win in Talladega."
This was the first Winston Cup car that Michael had ever owned. "It's a good car," Kenny said. "People know Michael and I have a lot of fun, but we are serious competitors and we'll have a first class chance to find victory lane." The car he was slated to drive had tested well with Michael at Talladega, and Junior had raced it at Daytona in 2001. Kenny's recent history at the track was also outstanding. The year before, he finished 6th, and in 2000, he finished 2nd at the race where Dale Earnhardt acchieved his final win. Hopes ran high that Kenny would succeed with Michael Waltrip Racing at Talladega.
Before that race, however, Michael was involved in an accident with his own Aaron's car. The crash occurred in the O'Reilley 300, a Busch Series event at Texas. On lap 49, Lyndon Amick lost control of his car between turns 1 and 2. His Dr. Pepper Chevy spun, and hit the wall rear-first. As Michael saw the wreck unfold before his eyes, he dove to the inside, where he got wedged between two cars. The angle at which he collided with the cars sent him soaring over the right front end of Amick's car, and launched his #99 Aaron's Dream Machine into the air. While other cars spun out, Michael's Chevy flipped end-over-end. It landed upside-down, and burst into flames. Michael struggled to get out of the car, his 6'5" frame wriggling within the Chevy's greenhouse. Safety workers rushed to Michael's side. "My car was a little smaller than it should have been," he said. "I couldn't get out of it... Thankfully, they were right there to attend to me." The safety workers removed a dazed Michael from his car, and sprayed him with choking halon. Michael allowed them to lead him to the ambulance, stopping momentarily to look over his damaged car. Once he got out of the infield care centre, he announced that he was okay, and that the wreck hadn't hurt.
Michael raced at Talladega two weeks later, where the 1-2 DEI finish first graced Talladega. Three of the last six restrictor plate races had ended in this manner. In this event, Michael pushed Junior to the win. “All credit goes to Michael on this one y’all, all of it,” Junior said. “Do y’all hear me? Without him we wouldn’t have won this thing.
“I know how frustrating it is," Junior continued. "It’s awfully mentally hard when guys are beating on your bumper and trying to pass you, and you’re holding them off so your teammate can win. That’s why we have teammates. When you’re in those situations you have an advantage over the field. I know what he deals with. It’d be hard, but what’s good for me is good for DEI. What’s good for Michael is good for DEI. It’s all about keeping the company going.”
Michael also finished 5th that day, as car owner for Kenny Wallace. Official NASCAR statistics place Kenny at 21st, but anybody who saw that race knows he finished 5th. The controversy lies within an incident that occurred two laps from the finish line. Kenny was driving in 6th position when he dove inside to pass Sterling Marlin. Marlin drifted down the track, and trapped Kenny below the yellow line. Kenny slid in front of Marlin, and finished the race in 5th. After the race, Marlin complained to NASCAR officials concerning the incident. According to the rules, cars are permitted to drive below the yellow line, but they cannot advance their position by doing so. Kenny had gained a spot when Marlin forced him below the yellow line. Shortly after the race, Kenny was informed that NASCAR was penalysing him; they would mark him as finishing 21st, which was the end of the lead lap.
"What the hell am I going to do?" Kenny said. "He ran me in the yellow lane. When you’re in your heart, you know you finished fifth. That’s good."
Just ask Kenny heard about the penalty, Michael came over to congratulate him. Kenny told his car owner what happened, and Michael affirmed what Kenny had said earlier. He also let the driver know that he was proud of him. In the media centre later on, Michael joked, "You think I ought to protest it? I’ve never been a car owner before."
In the following weeks, rumours again circulated about DEI bringing in a new driver. The buzz was that DEI was looking to bring in Elliott Sadler, who would not resign with either Steve Park in the #1 car, or Michael in the #15 for 2003. Both Michael and Park's contracts ended at the end of the present season, and neither were having a good start to 2002. Park's come-back had been rocky. Before the halfway mark of the season, Park was producing poor finishes, and had gotten into a few controversial accidents that led people to question whether he had come back too early. The beginning of the 2002 season for Michael had also been inconsistent. While he had placed 2nd at Talladega and 6th at Daytona, his next best finish was 13th at Martinsville, and his 2002 record was already littered with two 40th place finishes, and one 30th. Michael let people know that “I fully expect that I’ll be driving this car next year. That’s my intention. If it’s a forgone conclusion that I won’t be, then I don’t know about that.”
Junior released a statement to the press concerning the rumours. “It’s not the truth until you hear from us or him [Sadler]. I don’t know why everybody has to believe stuff like that. It’s kind of funny. I don’t know if we’re looking at Elliott; we’re just looking at ways to improve our team. I look at our teams myself individually as if they were stock, and we have to continue to raise the value of the team and try to improve the team as far as members, crew members, or any area that we see needs to be improved. We either try to take this guy and help him along or try to improve him or give him the things that he thinks he needs to succeed or we make a change. That’s the nature of the beast. As far as Elliott goes, I wouldn’t worry about posting anything until you hear it from us.”
Junior had a point regarding Elliott Sadler. At that point in the season, Sadler's performance lacked consistency as well, just like DEI's current drivers. Nonetheless, Ty Norris announced that Sadler was "very high" on their small list of candidates. “We basically have two drivers with contracts up and the end of the year,” Norris said. “So we’re feeling things out, seeing who is available and what is available.” He said that changes were on the horizon in DEI, and that Michael and Park's teams needed to improve, or DEI would have a personnel shakeup.
"I'm thinking by the beginning of June we'll know what we're going to do," Norris announced, "for the end of this and for next year, because both Michael and Steve have a renegotiating deadline of June 15." He also indicated that sponsorship for the two teams played a large role in DEI's decisions. Rumours indicated that NAPA was looking elsewhere for the 2003 season, and that other car owners were preparing to make bids for the sponsor.
Gossip concerning DEI, however, did not end there. A new rumour surfaced, indicating that Theresa Earnhardt wanted to move to Florida and sell DEI. Because two of the three DEI drivers' contracts expired at the end of the year, DEI would continue as a one-car operation. The word was that Anheuser-Busch would purchase DEI to protect their investment in Junior. Both Norris and Park denied the gossip. “I’ve talked to Teresa quite a bit and there’s no indication that the team’s going to be sold,” Park said. “I think that’s part of the rumor mill we’re all kind of suffering through right now. We’ve got Dale Earnhardt Jr. [and] Teresa Earnhardt and they plan on being around the sport for quite a long time.”
Michael excelled under the pressure. In the five races after Talladega, he had a top 5 and two top 10's. "I've been solidly, solidly in a good place mentally since last fall," Michael said. "I admit I didn't know where I was for a while or what I wanted to do, and that's unfortunate because so many people count on me. I couldn't help it."
Despite Michael's improvement, Junior announced in the beginning of June that DEI had told Michael they were looking at replacement drivers for his #15 car. Junior said, "His job is in his hands, so to speak. It's been a tough situation over the past several weeks for us. We tried to deal with it as best we can." Just after Junior's announcement, DEI moved back their official announcement to the middle of June. Some folks speculate they delayed their final decision due to Michael's present ontrack success, which may have kept Napa interested in DEI.
On July 8th, Michael stepped up his ontrack performance another notch by winning the Pepsi 400 at Daytona. Michael had led most of the 160 laps. With nine laps to go, he took the race lead, with Junior pushing him. The race, however, would not end with a 1-2 DEI finish. "I told Michael in the drivers' meeting I'd stay dedicated to him and that's what I wanted to do," Junior said. "But Tony Jr. [his car chief and cousin] told me if I didn't try to win the race I wasn't a race car driver, so I tried to win the race."
On lap 187, Junior dove for the lead. Rusty Wallace, however, chose to stay with Michael, leaving Junior hung out to dry. "I didn't have anything for him [Michael]; he was in his own league," Rusty said. "Junior was really good, but when Junior tried to pass him, he went up high and there was nothing up there and nobody to help him. I went down low and Sterling [Marlin] hooked up behind me and off we went."
The yellow flag came out three laps before the end of the race, and finished under caution. Michael took the checkered flag without Junior in second. "I'm just so proud of these guys and especially Slugger," he said. "He just worked on this car and made sure it was faster than anybody else's. Man, we won the race and held off a challenge from our teammate so nobody can say we did it in formation."
Nonetheless, the folks in the stands had plenty to say. "I've never seen anybody be so jubilant for Michael Waltrip winning in my life," Rusty said. "I saw all those Pepsi seat cushions come over and I said, 'What in the world is going on?' The back straightaway was so littered with beer cans and Pepsi things you couldn't have done nothing."
"That was wild," Jeremy Mayfield recalled. "I had some sort of bottle or something bounce right off my hood."
The crowds were not cheering Michael's victory. They were not recognising Michael's success in leading 99 of the 160-lap race. Instead, they were expressing their anger at the race finishing under caution. Michael learned this from victory lane. "I thought they were congratulating me," he said. "I thought it was like a ticker-tape parade. You mean they were mad? I'm so stupid sometimes."
"I guess they were mad because no one knows when races are going to be stopped and when they aren't," Mayfield expressed. "We don't understand it, either. But if they went back green, it was going to be mayhem for the last lap. I guess we got it anyway with the fans throwing all that stuff."
Rusty believed that NASCAR made the right call. "You just don't want to restart races with three laps to go on a superspeedway. It can be very, very dangerous. Not because I was running second, it was just a real smart thing to do."
The primative behaviour of the back-straightaway spectators infuriated many drivers. "It created a danger to the drivers," Kyle Petty said. ``I understand the anger over the inconsistency of stopping some races and not stopping others. But that's not my fault, don't take it out on me. Thirty years ago it wasn't nothing to get a bottle tossed through your window, and tonight the sport went back thirty years."
"That's a shame 200 people make 100,000 look bad," Jeff Burton said. "It's certainly uncalled for and unacceptable."
Fan rage was not the only thing that marred Michael's second victory. He was also upset with himself for an incident that occurred ten laps into the race. While battling for position, Michael made contact with Johnny Benson's #10 Valvoline Chevy. Benson hit the wall, and cracked two ribs. Although Benson had broken his ribs back at Richmond in May, Michael felt responsible for what happened. From victory lane, he said, "I want to send out my heart to Johnny Benson. I'm just torn up about that; and hopefully he's all right.
"I just tried to get in line and made a mistake," Michael continued. "I hate that. It's killing me inside. And when I go to bed tonight after all the celebrating is over I have to lay down with that and that's hard. But that's why you see all these wrecks at these plate races because it's real easy to make a mistake and I just flat made one."
A few hours later, Michael visited Benson in the hospital and asked for his forgiveness. The two had been friends long before this race, and did not allow the accident to destroy that friendship. Benson accepted Michael's apology.
When all the dust and chaos cleared at Daytona that day, folks noticed peculiar prints on the lawn beside the front straightaway. The markings came from the tires of Michael's car, and he had created them by doing doughnuts across the infield. Remarkably, the prints resembled Earnhardt's #3.
Michael recognised how incredible that was. "Hey, that's pretty cool," he said. "That's a E if you turn it around. I never did donuts before so I didn't want to do it on pavement because I was afraid I didn't know how. I figured any idiot could do them in the grass. So I just went out there and did me a couple. I never was a donut guy. I just thought you ought to win and go into victory lane."
Before Michael won the Pepsi 400, Pennzoil announced that it was resigning with DEI for 2003. Rumours had spread all season that NAPA would not renew with Michael's contract. In the beginning of July, the word was that NAPA wouldn't resign with DEI either. Just after the Pepsi 400, NAPA ordered a number of Coca-Cola vending machines with Michael's picture on them. They also announced that they were resigning with both Michael and DEI.
“It’s been so much fun being a part of the NAPA family,” Michael said. “Over the last year and a half we’ve developed wonderful relationships with NAPA store owners and NAPA customers. NAPA uses NASCAR to sell products. I understand that, and I think we’ve produced a valuable partnership in a short time.”
The next week, Michael arrived at Chicago International Speedway as both driver and car owner. He had purchased one of his old NAPA cars and leased engines from DEI for Jerry Nadeau, who would drive the #00 Aaron's Chevrolet. "Aaron's comes to me about everything they do in NASCAR", Michael said. "I wanted to field another Winston Cup car and they were willing to back me."
"I'm excited that Michael and Aaron's are giving me this chance," said Nadeau. "Especially at a track like Chicago. I almost won there last year. Mile and a half tracks have in general been good to me. And the guys at the shop have been working their butts off to give me a great car to test with. It's going to be a fun weekend and hopefully if things go well I'll have more opportunities like this in the future."
Michael's second stint as car-owner, however, was not as successful as his first endeavour. On lap 217, Nadeau experienced steering trouble that ultimately took him out of the race. Michael also did not fare well in Chicago. He was already in the garage when Nadeau returned, after blowing his engine halfway through the race. Michael finished 42nd; Nadeau was 37th.
Another low-point in the season came at Phoenix International Raceway. After the Checker Auto Parts 500, an inexplicable incident took place. Michael stormed through the garage area, and up to Terry Labonte's hauler. The two exchanged angry words before Terry lunged at Michael, who ran off. The older Labonte brother then chased him through the garage area. Terry had to be restrained from punching Michael once he caught up with him.
Many folks wondered what brought on this bizarre incident. Although Michael and Terry had bumped one another during races throughout the season, the two did not have a run-in at Phoenix. They had finished six positions and one lap apart from one another. A member of Terry's crew said the cause of the incident was “Michael running his mouth"; however, Darrell had a different explanation. "Apparently they had had a run-in a time or two before Sunday. They had words after the Phoenix race, and as far as I know, and I talked to Michael, he said that was the end of it. Two drivers that weren't having very good days decided to take it out on each other at the end of the race."
Despite these minor set-backs, Michael raced a spectacular season. In October, he brought racing and friendship together, when he and his wife hosted the first annual 'Party with the Posse'. 'The Posse' refers to the Sherills-Ford Posse, which is what Michael calls those who work for Michael Waltrip Incorporated. The Waltrips set up the event initially help raise money for MWI employee Randall Bradford, who has accrued medical expenses while battling cancer. For the past three years, Bradford has worked as the brakes and suspension specialist for Michael's Busch Series car.
"Randall has been a dedicated employee for a number of years," Michael explained. "I wanted to return my appreciation for his loyal efforts, and thought it would be appropriate to hold an event honoring him in his hometown. I've hosted fundraisers in the past, but I wanted this to be different. I wanted to throw a party for race fans and hoped that everyone from across the country that wanted to attend would be able to do so. I didn't want to limit the number of guests and I didn't want the day to be too formal either. The carnival-like atmosphere created for the event was perfect for families traveling several hours to come to the race, or for neighbors across street."
Folks paid $10 admission for the event featured show cars, live and silent auctions of items drivers had donated, and a three-hour autograph session with Michael, Darrell, Harry Gant, Geoffrey Bodine, Jeff Green, Sterling Marlin, Jerry Nadeau, Steve Park, Ken Schrader, Kenny Wallace, Greg Biffle, Tim Fedewa, Mark Green, Randy Lajoie, Ashton Lewis Jr, Hank Parker Jr, Tim Sauter, and Brian Vickers.
The party surpassed Michael's vision. "When we first started planning the event," he said, "we hoped 500 people would attend. I never anticipated the turnout or the money we would raise in our little town. I am grateful to the many volunteers who made 'Party with the Posse' run smoothly. $73,000 is a lot of money that will assist several wonderful causes. Thank you to everyone who attended and volunteered their time." The extra funds went to Sherrills Ford-Terrell Fire & Rescue, Victory Junction Gang, and the Busch Series Ladies Association.
Michael had an excellent 2002 season, finishing 14th in points. If NASCAR based point standings solely on a driver's second half of the season, Michael would have easily made the top ten. Michael's amazing year extended past racing. Along the way, he made stronger and more personal bonds with those around him, which allowed for him to perform progressively better throughout the months. It also helped him to realise more perfectly the support that he has as a racer, and as a person.
During the offseason, Michael prepared himself for 2003 by focusing on his health. He is eating better and works to stay in shape. He is running again. "Physical strength gives me great mental strength, like the marathon deal I did," Michael said. "I did that because I thought I could be a better race-car driver. People might outrun me, but they're weren't going to outlast me."
Ty Norris is pleased with Michael's initiative. "A lot of people say, 'We're going to be great this year and so and so is going to happen,' but they're just words," he said. "Michael took action. Michael went out and took care of some areas where he thought he might need some help. We're in the best position we've ever been in. If we walk out of here and Michael Waltrip is anything else other than the Daytona 500 champion again, I think he and his guys will be very disappointed. We believe that he's the guy to beat."
Michael came into the 2003 season knowing that he was the guy to beat. During preseason practice, he ran incredible laps at Daytona that kept him at the top of the best times list. He came into qualifying confident that he would get the pole; however, his childhood friend Jeff Green received that honour. Michael qualified 4th. Because Junior was 2nd fastest, they both ran the second Gatorade 125. The result was a 1-2 DEI finish, where Junior took the win. The victory could have belonged to Michael.
"I turned Junior sideways a little on the front straightaway once and rolled out of the gas, because I could have passed him," he said, "but that's my teammate. I don't want to knock him sideways and pass him, so I just rolled out too and let him go."
Michael's finish instilled confidence in the team. "We were real happy with how the car ran," Slugger said. "We were just where we needed to be during this race and we feel good about Sunday."
The #15 team had every right to feel good about days to come. On February 16th, Michael won the 2003 Daytona 500, becoming the eighth person to ever win the race more than once. He led 68 of the 109 laps. The race was scheduled to end at lap 200; however, the weather changed the game plan. NASCAR could control drivers, personnel, and fans, but they were powerless against the rain that poured at intervals over Daytona that day. The race was red-flagged twice because of rain. The second time was on lap 109, when Michael was in the lead.
During the second rain delay, Michael sat with Buffy. The couple watched the track and the officials, awaiting news. Either the hot-air dryers would dry off the track, and they would go back racing, or NASCAR would call the race, and declare Michael the winner. Over an hour later, NASCAR made an announcement, and Michael and Buffy jumped up and cheered. Michael had won the race.
Michael ran through the grass with his arms over his head, and a smile across his lips.
"I can't believe it!" he exclaimed. "I was telling Buffy I heard that it hadn't been shortened since 1966. I said they're due! It's gotta be about time when we got shortened up again. So thankful, so thankful for Dale Earnhardt. He made this place even more special to me, watching him over the years. And I know his heart, and he was about this place. ANd I know he's smiling now."
Tears brimmed in the racer's eyes. "This place and he were one, and if you're gonna die, when it's time to die, you need to go somewhere where you feel so at ease and at peace and at home, and that describes Dale at Daytona. I'm just thankful for the opportunity he gave me, I'm thankful for Theresa [Earnhardt] who's running DEI. Oh all the guys... Slugger. I mean, it's amazing!"
Slugger ran over and hugged Michael. "It's just amazing," Mikey continued, with an arm slung around his crew chief, "that we put that car in the front and then it started raining. It's just, people don't know what, I mean, you just don't know what Daytona means. You can't know unless you've lived your life pursuing dreams that come true here. Thank God for the nice rain shower! I prayed for it to rain. I prayed for God to forgive me for the dumb things I do, and to make me a better person, and then I ask for what I want, and today, I really wanted some rain."
Darrell was teary-eyed in the commentator's booth. "Well, there's a lot of people that Michael, I'm sure, would be glad saw him win this race," he spoke on national television. "But the two people I think he'd wish most could have seen him was Dale Earnhardt and our dad."
Within seconds, Darrell went from drama to humour. "You know," he laughed, "I drug that little scoundrel down here when he was seven years old to watch me race, and never had any idea that he could win!"
Michael's second Daytona 500 victory was nearly fourty years in the making. Now he goes forward with the experience and achievements of his past, and the resolve to succeed in the future. Michael is a Winston Cup legend in the making; his fans are lucky to see him unfold and further blossom every week. Michael is ready for an incredible 2003 season.
"He knows that this is his time," said Ty Norris. "It's time for him to make hay."
Buffy writes a chapter of the book, where she tells how she and Michael met, courted, and got married. She also discusses their present family life. The chapter contains several exclusive full-colour pictures.
(pages 170 - 175)
I highly recommend both books, especially if you're wanting to learn more about either subject. If you would like to order either book, click on the cover picture.
Racing Milestones October 2002
Michael Waltrip: Living up to expectations by Monte Dutton
(pages 32 - 37)
Stock Car Racing: Dec 2002
Michael Waltrip Interview by Larry Cothren
(pages 46 - 50)
Maybe Waltrip's time has come
by Monte Dutton, Gazette Sports Reporter
"Beyond the Glory: Darrell and Michael Waltrip"
Fox Sports Network