M. Waltrip seeks post-Daytona win

Earnhardt's death was focus in Feb.

September 21, 2001|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

DOVER, Del. - The Longest Yard. The Longest Day. For Michael Waltrip, this may well be the Longest Year.

He went 17 years and drove in 462 races before he found victory lane on the Winston Cup circuit last February in the Daytona 500. And at almost exactly the same moment, his car owner and friend, Dale Earnhardt, died crashing into the Daytona International Speedway's concrete wall not far behind.

As Waltrip suits up for qualifying today for Sunday's MBNA Cal Ripken 400 at Dover Downs International Speedway, seven months have passed. And Waltrip has gained perspective on what happened that day and its impact on him.

"I was the perfect person to win that race, considering it was Dale's time to go," Waltrip says. "I didn't care about me. I just wanted to care about him. A lot of people would have had a hard time letting the race take a back seat, because the race matters so much. But we just wanted to talk about Dale."

And it did matter to him. How could it not have, after going so long without a victory? Waltrip and Earnhardt were the best of friends. Their wives were friends. They shared family vacations, family fun and competitive drive.

A smile still comes to Waltrip's face when he remembers the day Earnhardt shaved his mustache.

"We were snorkeling, and his mask wouldn't seal," Waltrip says. "I could go down and get more lobsters than he could. He said, `You ain't going to beat me today,' and he shaved his mustache off so his mask would seal. It's a good story about how he lived life."

Waltrip is silent for a few minutes. There is no doubt he misses his friend and mentor.

"I miss him and the fun we had," Waltrip says. "And I think his teams miss his guidance, direction and wisdom. Our team probably misses him that much more than the other two, because they're more mature. I was really looking forward to listening to Dale's critiques after races and asking what we were doing well.

"It's been a real challenge for us without him. We're a new team. We haven't grown as quickly as we had hoped. We've gone through a lot of personnel changes, and those will help us grow. But after getting off to a great start at Daytona, it took us all the way back to Daytona in July to get ourselves back together."

Earnhardt believed Waltrip could win races. He said in January that Waltrip simply needed the right situation, in which he had a good, reliable car, a solid crew and an owner who believed in him. With him, Earnhardt said, Waltrip had all those things.

"And," Earnhardt also said with mock sternness just before the season began, "I told him, he'd better win."

Waltrip won the Daytona 500, and he finished second in the Pepsi 400 there in July while pushing Earnhardt's son, Dale Jr., to victory. Only then did Waltrip allow himself to celebrate his February victory. He and Dale Jr. stood on top of the latter's race car, hugging, listening to the sound of 170,000 race fans screaming their approval.

"We couldn't even hear ourselves talk," Waltrip says. "But all at once, I knew we were celebrating both Dale Jr's victory and mine."

Over the first half of the season, there had been so many tributes to Earnhardt that Waltrip, like everyone else at Dale Earnhardt Inc., felt a little overwhelmed. Everywhere, there was another memorial program, another grandstand being named for a fallen champion, another sad prayer before a race. Race after race after race.

"I'm going to miss Dale, no matter what," Waltrip says. "The memorials, you just hope people are doing it for the right reason. You'd like to know where everyone's heart is.

"But I drive his car, and I try to respect what I think he would expect out of me. In that sense, his presence is there, because I feel like I need to be smart and responsible and do what he would want me to do."

Part of what Earnhardt wanted was for Waltrip to win races. Since the Daytona 500, he hasn't won again. Sometimes, athletes say after winning their sports' biggest events they'd be content if they never won again. Waltrip looks aghast when that idea is even suggested.

"I feel the same pressure to win the next one as I did before I won Daytona," he said. "I can't explain to you how bad it feels to think I'd never win another one. When I started this career, I knew I'd win one race. Of course, I didn't think it would take me 460-some tries to do it. But now, I've got, just got to do it again."

Dover would be a good place to get back to victory lane. He won his first race, in the Busch series, here almost 13 years ago to the day.

"I was driving for my brother Darrell," he said. "That was one of the neatest things that ever happened in my career, and I've loved racing at Dover ever since."

Dover weekend

What: NASCAR Winston Cup and support series

Where: Dover Downs International Speedway, Dover, Del.

Schedule: Today: Winston Cup qualifying, 1:35 p.m. MBNA E-Commerce 150 for the Busch North Series, 4:30 p.m. Tomorrow: Winston Cup practice, 11:15 a.m. MBNA.Com 200 Busch Grand National race, 1 p.m.

Sunday: MBNA Cal Ripken Jr. 400, 1 p.m.

Tickets: Call 800-441-RACE (7223)

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