'Other' Waltrip geared up for 1st win Michael has had success at Dover

AUTO RACING

September 20, 1992|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,Staff Writer

Say the name Waltrip at a race track and heads spin. Darrell Waltrip? Where? Where? But this Waltrip isn't the three-time Winston Cup champion. This one is Michael, Darrell's "little" brother, and while the older brother has soared to the top, the younger one is in danger of being labeled mediocre.

"It was just a year ago that I was voted 'the can't-miss-winning-soon driver' " Michael Waltrip said last week. "It's not fair to put me out to pasture yet. I don't think my stock is real high at the moment, but I think it's too soon to give up on me. I admit, my confidence has been shaken, but I think that's only human."

He is 29 and this is his seventh full season on the Winston Cup circuit. When he takes the green flag in his Pennzoil Pontiac today in the Peak Antifreeze 500 at Dover Downs International Speedway in Delaware, Waltrip will be starting his 200th Winston Cup race.

At Dover, his confidence will not be a problem. Dover, and its one-mile, high-banked oval, is a racetrack he loves.

His first Busch Grand National win came at Dover.

His first Winston Cup pole came at Dover.

Hopefully, he says, his first Winston Cup victory will come today at Dover.

"I like the track because it's demanding," he said. "You have to do a day's work to have something good happen to you at Dover, and I've had consistent top-10 finishes at this track. I'm focused for 500 miles there and I know you can't be a flash in the pan and finish the way I have at Dover. It's a race for the strong at heart."

No one has ever questioned Michael Waltrip's heart. From the beginning, it has been totally immersed in auto racing.

He was born in Owensboro, Ky., 16 years after his brother, Darrell, who won his first race when Michael was 10 and listening on the radio.

"Growing up, I was more Darrell's fan than his brother," says the 6-foot-5 driver, whose features are softer, more rounded than his older brother's. "I'd listen to Darrell race and I'd want to race so bad. I called him up once, when I was 17, and asked for help getting a car. He said it was too difficult and too expensive and he didn't feel it was easy to make it to the top."

Darrell Waltrip was right. But that didn't stop Michael. He went from organizing 100-lap bicycle races as an 8-year-old to Go-Karts and stock cars. In 1984, with a shirt on his back and little else, Michael went to Atlanta and met Kyle Petty. He stayed with Kyle, his wife Patty and their kids for three months and then moved in with Richard Petty and his wife Linda for two more.

"I worked in Richard's shop," Michael said. "And it was the best time. I'll never forget lying on the couch, while the King laid back in his recliner, telling me how he saw things. I never had a chance to do that with Darrell, and to me it will always be a wonderful experience."

Today, the younger Waltrip has one of the best-financed teams in the business. He has a solid owner in Chuck Rider, a solid sponsor in Pennzoil and the best equipment available. But it hasn't been enough to break into victory lane.

Sometimes, his story has sounded like a broken record. At the start of every season he talks about being more experienced, about the togetherness among the team members, about how well-prepared they are. But somewhere along the way comes the inevitable breakdown.

"It's been tough," he said. "We were running second at Daytona in February with a chance to win, when the engine broke. We've had problems, but now we've got Ron Puryear working on our engines and we've got a new crew chief in Doug Hewitt. And I'm gaining confidence."

But the question remains. When will he win?

"I don't know," he said. "I needed something good to happen to me at Darlington a few weeks ago, and I got the victory in the Grand National race. I got it by being smart, patient and charging at the end. You know what? I'm real confident we can do that again [today] at Dover."

Peak 500

Where: Dover Downs International Speedway, Dover, Del.

When: Today, 12:10 p.m.

Purse: $680,000

Top qualifier: Alan Kulwicki, Ford Thunderbird, 145.267 mph

TV: TNN

Radio: WXCY (103.7 FM)

Tickets: Infield available

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