Waltrip picks up pace, winning pole

Third such spot in career ends 456-race struggle

respect, confidence grow

Auto Racing

June 12, 2005|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

LONG POND, Pa. - When you think about veteran stock car driver Michael Waltrip, the descriptive word that should come to mind is fortitude.

He toiled through 463 losses in what is now the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series before winning. And the race he won was the 2001 Daytona 500, the same race in which his friend and car owner, Dale Earnhardt, was killed.

Waltrip was without a ride when Earnhardt hired him, determined to prove he was a good driver who simply needed a good team.

Yesterday afternoon, racing for a starting position in today's Pocono 500, Waltrip won the third pole position of his career. He drove his No. 15 Chevrolet around Pocono Raceway's 2.5-mile tri-oval at 169.052 mph.

The fact this pole came after a gap of 456 races is just another example of his fortitude, and further proof that Earnhardt was right.

"I can't stress enough about how much more important it is to have a great team instead of a great driver," he said after winning his first pole since June 21, 1991, nearly 14 years ago.

"When I won my first two poles in 1991, I might have thought I was the reason why. But I'm smarter now. I've never met anyone who knows more about this sport than Stiffy."

Stiffy is Tony Eury Jr., Waltrip's crew chief and the man who used to work with his father, Tony Eury Sr., on Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s cars until Earnhardt made the decision to switch crews during the offseason in hopes of giving both teams a shot of vitality.

Neither team has won since the swap and Earnhardt is two spots better in the Cup points standings, 15th and 17th, respectively. But it is the Waltrip side of the deal that seems to be making the most progress, being stalled primarily by engine failures.

"It took us one day during testing at Daytona to adjust to each other," Waltrip said. "In that time, I gained their utmost confidence and respect.

"They understood I knew what I was talking about and that helped me become comfortable. I wasn't comfortable last year because I didn't feel I had the confidence of the team."

Respect has always been hard for Waltrip to come by. Even today, the two-time Daytona 500 winner and four-time race winner finds it hard to achieve.

"When I was walking through the garage after qualifying," Waltrip said, "I heard people saying, `He can take Michael and run good with him. Just think what he could do if we gave him a real driver.' "

Waltrip, 42, continues to hide whatever hurt he feels behind deprecating humor: "Since Daytona in February," he said, "the best qualifying position we've had was 17th and that was last week in Dover - and we only got that because it rained."

But Kurt Busch, who qualified second with a run of 168.678 mph in his No. 97 Jack Roush-owned Ford, said it was no surprise to him that Waltrip is on the pole here.

"It was a career lap for Michael, yet I expected it," Busch said. "He drove away from us in practice yesterday."

Earnhardt, who had the same qualifying setup as Waltrip, but did not get a practice lap with that setup, wound up 34th fastest at 164.871 mph in his No. 8 Chevrolet.

Most eyes have been on Earnhardt this season as he has changed crew chiefs and let it be known the door is open for applications outside the team's compound. But despite the struggles with Waltrip's old crew, Waltrip said the switch will wind up being good for both teams.

"Obviously, Dale Jr. has struggled," Waltrip said. "But I think we'll be stronger and better because of it because the organization can see one team is not up to the standards of the other.

"Quite honestly, I wanted some change on that team if I was going to drive that car again this year. So I guess I'm not overly surprised.

"But now everyone can see what has to be worked on and Dale Jr. has the talent and ability to work with his crew and [vice president], Richie Gilmore is bringing both teams together to share information more than we've ever done before. The change is going to be good for DEI."

Yesterday, it was obviously very good for Michael Waltrip and he believes his car will be one of the best today.

NOTE: Busch has been invited to a Chicago Cubs game as the 2004 Cup Series champion and asked to sing "Take Me Out To The Ball Game." "I'll have my chance," said Busch, laughing, recalling Jeff Gordon's embarrassing moment in the same limelight last month. "Maybe I'll take Gordon along with me for a few pointers." ... Ryan Newman qualified 17th, ending a streak of 20 consecutive top-10 starts.

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