During a press conference to announce a new association between Michael Waltrip, driver of the No. 15 DEI Chevrolet Monte Carlo and Domino's Pizza, the official pizza of NASCAR, Waltrip made the following comments to the media about the upcoming...
During a press conference to announce a new association between Michael Waltrip, driver of the No. 15 DEI Chevrolet Monte Carlo and Domino's Pizza, the official pizza of NASCAR, Waltrip made the following comments to the media about the upcoming Daytona 500:
ARE YOU READY FOR THE 125 QUALIFYING RACES TOMORROW?
"Ever since we rolled the car out on the track during the test session in January, we've been following a plan. That is to make our car handle as well as it can and run as fast as it can with tape and race configuration on the race car. That's all been going very well and we've learned a lot. We feel like this practice that just finished that we've got the car exactly the way I want it. Tomorrow's races are so much fun. They are entertaining for the fans to watch. But to the drivers, you present your car to pit road for the 125's tomorrow set up the way you think it needs to be to win the Daytona 500. You're say, 'Here it is. This is what we'll race in the Daytona 500'. You go out and race 125 miles. If you win or things go the way you want them to, you're ready. If it doesn't go the way you want it to, you've got another couple of practices to work on it and get it better for Sunday. Tomorrow is a big test for us. The car is running great and we're ready to go."
WHAT ARE THE CHANCES OF HAVING A BIG WRECK IN THIS YEAR'S DAYTONA 500?
"Fifty-fifty. We've seen some crazy crashes and wild races here and we've seen ones that have been relatively calm comparatively speaking. It won't have anything to do with the spoilers or the tires. It all comes down to the competitors and what choices they make throughout the 500-mile race. It's easy to be very critical and negative toward anything before it happens. And when it's over, maybe you realize it didn't turn out that way and you've spent a lot of time worrying about something that didn't matter. I think it's going to be a great race. It's just amazing to be here as the defending champion that's had success here recently and to have a car that I think I can win again with."
HOW HAS WINNING THE DAYTONA 500 CHANGED YOUR LIFE?
"It didn't change the way I looked at myself so much, but it sure changed the way a lot of other people looked at me. That's had some affect on me. I felt I was capable of winning and able to win at any time, anywhere, on this circuit. And when I won Daytona the first time, people thought it was pretty cool. But to come back and win in July has gained us a lot of respect - not only from the media, but from the fans as well. But what means more to me is that the competitors know we're going to be one of the teams you're going to have to beat. We're going to be there."
ON GOING SO LONG WITHOUT HIS FIRST CUP WIN
"One thing I always worried about, and a lot was made about how long I went without winning, but I always told Buffy (wife) that I was more worried that I'd never get the chance to win. (Not) getting the opportunity to be in a car that's capable of winning is what puts pressure on me. Throughout my career, there have been times when I've been close. I won The Winston with the Wood Bros. We had some good races. I've come close to winning races throughout my entire career.
"But the clock was starting to click - loudly - when Dale (Earnhardt) hired me to drive his car. And the day he hired me, the pressure was off. There is no pressure to drive Dale Earnhardt's car. I know I'm going to win in his car. The pressure was whether I'd ever get the chance at that stage in the game. Dale was probably the only guy big enough in this sport to say, 'NAPA, I've got a great idea. Come check this out.'
"We had a solid year last year for three-quarters of the year. We stayed right up in front in the points. We faded in the end because of wrecks and things that went down. But at the end of the year, our performance was right on. At Phoenix, we finished top five. That was a flat track. At Rockingham, we had one of the fastest cars there but had an engine problem. At Homestead, we were in the top five again all day long but blew a tire and crashed. We were on top of it. We just didn't get the results we were looking for."
LEADING INTO THE DAYTONA 500, WHY AREN'T PEOPLE TALKING ABOUT YOU VERY MUCH?
"You have to earn your respect from the media and the competitors and the media. We haven't shown from race one to race 36 that we are deserving of being characterized as championship contenders. But I've proven to myself we can do it. So, I like it that way. It's kind of like being down here and hearing all the talk about Yates and Dale Jr. and I'm over in the corner saying, 'Hey, they're not thinking about old Mike".
"I think I did. I tried to get up and be as positive as I could every Sunday and give it all I had. The only think I kept going back to is that I would always think I was just not in the right situation. The thing that disappointed me about my career for a long time was that I wasn't good enough. I wasn't a strong enough person to change the situation I was in and make it the right situation for me. That's probably a lot of load to bear and a lot of blame to shoulder because of the complex individuals that come together to make up the team. That was hard on me for a long time. But now, I'm happy. I've got a great crew chief, a fast car, and I have all kinds of sponsors. I'm doing TV shows. That's pretty cool."
DO YOU FEEL THE NEED TO WIN A NON-PLATE RACE?
"They're going to have them, so I want to win them. I've come so close a few times, but not so close enough times to where it finally happened. But I've never been closer than I was at Loudon, New Hampshire last fall. We had the fastest car there and got the lead with 20 laps to go and ran out of gas. That was just a couple of months ago. The car was capable of winning at Phoenix. We'll get them."
ON THE SPONSORSHIP OF NEXTEL CUP TEAMS
"Most of the teams are well-funded and have great sponsors. The sport is healthier than ever, I think, as a whole. More people are showing up and the TV ratings are high. The majority of our cars are well funded. Any time that the economy turns down a little bit, there are people who make decisions that affect motorsports in general. So, we're talking about two or three teams that have proven they can win races and are very deserving of sponsors that haven't been able to come up with them yet. I don't think that means the sport isn't healthy. I think it's very healthy.
"The reason you see 45 cars at Daytona is because they're only going to start 43 cars. The reason why there aren't 55 cars here is because of the competition level of our sport. People with cars all over this country used to wash them off and drag them down here to try and make the Daytona 500. Those days are over. There are 43 fast race cars that are going to be in the race. Most people figure if they're not going to be able to make the race, why even bother? Realistically, it would be very difficult for somebody who hasn't been a regular on our circuit to make the race.
"I would rather have 40 cars at Rockingham - and the competition level be what it is today - than have 50 cars at Rockingham with 20 of them having a shot to win and 30 of them don't."
ON THE LACK OF SPONSORSHIP ON THE NO. 1 CAR AT DEI
"At DEI, we have two well-funded NASCAR NEXTEL Cup cars. We've expanded the Busch program and Martin Truex Jr. is going to run for the title. Dale Jr. will run a few select races. So we only have two Cup cars because we've added a Busch Series effort. The No. 1 car is running really well here. It's sponsored by Kraft Foods. We're trying to see how many races we can pull together sponsorship for that we can continue that effort.
"Look at Brendan Gaughan and Roger Penske. They put together a package and went to Kodak and said, 'Ryan (Newman) is winning races. Rusty is a champion. Brendan just raced for the Truck championship. We have a combination here that can be potent.' And they sold Kodak on that and rightfully so. I agree. That could be a wonderful situation. The No. 1 car has seen some hard times lately. When Steve Park got hurt, that team was on the top of its game. They were in the top five in the points, running up front, and winning races. Steve got hurt and they've been through a lot over the last couple of years. The performance, quite honestly, hasn't been there. So it was easier to sell an unknown to a sponsor than it was a known. That was the No. 1 car and what was known about it was that lately they haven't been doing too good. But they're going to turn that around and perform. When they perform, that sponsorship will come around."
WHEN ARE YOU AND DALE EARNHARDT JR. GOING TO GET TOGETHER AND TALK ABOUT YOUR PLAN FOR THE DAYTONA 500?
"We don't really discuss that. We feel like both of us knows exactly what to do to be successful. If we discuss or plan something - and you can't plan a race - the plan changes as soon as the caution flag falls. My goal - I haven't really asked him what his is - my goal is to get to the front. When I get there, if he's not there, he won't be far behind. And once we get to the front, we'll do everything we can to stay there. That's the plan.
"Last night we talked for a little while. The thing on his mind is that he's doing his own web site. He wants me to go over and check it out. He is so refreshing. I look at him and he looks just like his dad. He does some things and he acts just like him. And then all of a sudden he acts like he's 12 years old. He's a real interesting person. I'm certainly proud that he's my teammate. I've really enjoyed the experience of being on the same team with Dale Jr."