MICHAEL WALTRIP, No. 40 Aaron's Dream Machine Toyota Camry, Hillman Racing
What makes winning the Daytona 500 difficult? "It's just a special race, it's hard. Everybody brings their best stuff. They've had a couple months to tweak on it. Everybody's mind set is win at any cost. It's the biggest race ever, let's go win it. We'll worry about points later and very seldom does that -- that doesn't happen. Everything is about winning here at Daytona. We've seen a lot of interesting things over the last 10 years in people getting to victory lane. Mark Martin coming up just a foot short a few years back. Trevor Bayne, the big upset last year. Jimmie Johnson winning in '06 without his crew chief. Event after event that makes this place something special."
How hard is it to be a repeat winner of the Daytona 500? "Well, you look at the people who haven't won it, then you have to think there's a pretty good chance that it won't be a repeat winner for a while. I'm kind of liking it because only a few people have won it more than once. I'm fortunate that I'm one on that list. It would be a pretty cool story to see Dale (Earnhardt) Jr. win it. It's such a special place for he and I back in the day, and I'd like to see him celebrate here."
How did you start out racing in Indiana and Kentucky? "I won my first race at Olney, Illinois in a go-kart when I was 12 at a little track over there. I was in Olney the other day for NAPA doing an appearance and I went and found where that track was and that was pretty cool. I raced all up and down Indiana, Illinois in go-karts. Most of my stock car racing -- when I turned 18 I started racing at the local track in Owensboro (Kentucky) and went south from there. I didn't go much and race -- I raced in Ft. Wayne (Indiana) a couple times in an ASA stock car, but mostly I went from Kentucky to Tennessee to North Carolina."
How much of an influence was your brother Darrell Waltrip when you were starting your racing career? "Darrell (Waltrip) was off being a NASCAR guy and I was back in Kentucky trying to figure out how to race a car. We didn't really spend a lot of time together back then. It wasn't until '83 when I went NASCAR Dash racing that we started racing at the same tracks, so that was fun."
What does it mean to have the most starts at Daytona? "Well, the thing that's interesting is in 1975 I made my first trip down here. I was 11 and I just dreamed of racing here on those banks. I told someone earlier, I didn't have Playboy's stuck under my bed, I had stock car magazines that I was into. The first time I came through the tunnel, I thought someone was joking. I couldn't believe the massive size of the banked turns. Then, to fast forward to 2012 and having started more races here than anybody, that's crazy. I didn't see that coming."
How difficult is this sport to break into? "Well, I wrote a book last year and it did pretty well and I talk about my first race and how naïve I was thinking I was ready for it. Kids are just more prepared now. They have the internet to race their little simulator things. Mainly they have the ability to learn about this sport from the time they're five years old. When I was a kid, we had to get in the car in Owensboro, Ky., and drive for an hour down to the Tennessee-Kentucky line to be able to hear the race on the radio. That's how much we had to want to hear what Darrell (Waltrip, brother) was doing. Now, from the time they're born, they're exposed to the sport 24-hours a day. NASCAR.com, SPEED, the races on network TV -- it's flag-to-flag. They just know more about it. They're more prepared when it comes time to go racing. They start racing at earlier ages. Danica (Patrick) is a great example of that. She hadn't run NASCAR before, but she knew the tracks and she knew how to race and she has proven it."
Was there any doubt in your mind that you were going to be a race car driver? "Never any doubt in my mind. There was a lot of doubt in the people around me's mind. My mom and dad didn't encourage me to race because they had been through it with my brother Darrell (Waltrip) and they pretty much said, 'We've had enough.' I didn't know how I was going to be a race car driver. I just knew I was going to be a race car driver. I had to be pretty persistent. I had to be pretty resourceful to try to figure out a way to be able to get the breaks that it took to get into a race car. When your first option is mom and dad and they don't do anything, the next option gets a little more difficult. Fortunately, I was able to get som e help from my brother Bobby, who had a go-kart. He was a go-kart racer. So that gave me a chance to get in something to race and I did good at it and was able to continue on."
Are you surprised Trevor Bayne's Daytona 500 win didn't materialize into a full-time ride this year? "Well, it's society. It's not just NASCAR. It's just how difficult things are today. Trevor (Bayne) is a sharp young man, very well spoken, good looking kid with a great heart and can drive the heck out of a car and just didn't get the opportunity or hasn't gotten the opportunity to do it all full-time yet. There's people in all walks of life that are struggling for opportunities and that doesn't make -- that's the way things are today. I'm real fortunate that my team has been able to survive, because we started at absolutely the worst time in the world to start. We started when the economy was at the top of the world and we raced right into when it was maybe the worst its been since the depression and we've been able to survive. There are no guarantees. We are just real fortunate to have partners like NAPA and Aaron's or we wouldn't be around today."
Has the sport evolved to the point that it doesn't matter if the driver is female for you as a team owner? "If you think about it, back in the '90s, Shawna (Robinson) raced and then Patty Moise raced. Those girls got opportunities. Shawna raced a Cup race, I think. She's (Danica Patrick) a big star, so we're making a bigger deal out of it. But, Lyn St. James raced in the '70s and Janet Guthrie. So there's always been chances for ladies to do this job. This is an example of that. Now we'll just have to see if her talent can keep her a part of the landscape for a long time to come or if she can't do it. We don't know."
How important is winning the Daytona 500 to a NASCAR driver's career? "You have to win it. It's a must for a NASCAR driver. I know Tony (Stewart). I know how much it meant for him to win that World of Outlaw race last year. He'd been trying to do that for a long time. It would be the same with the Daytona 500. I think that's a great way to tell the story. There's things you're passionate about and he had competed in World of Outlaw and never won one. It was something that he had to do. He's competed in the Daytona 500, one of the greatest sporting spectacles in the world of the year, and he wants that to be on his list."
CLINT BOWYER, No. 15 5-Hour Energy Toyota Camry, Michael Waltrip Racing
What can you bring to Michael Waltrip Racing? "Looking at last year, they showed signs of brilliance and then I think where they lacked is being consistent throughout the year. If we're able to go there -- that's one thing that's always been my strong point. If I'm able to go there, get in his equipment and continue my consistency that I've been accustomed to over the last several years, I think that's what they're missing."
How are you preparing for this season? "Just kind of more of the same. It's been really busy in this off-season with everything that's new. It's been tough, but it's been a good opportunity. For whatever reason, we were very fortunate to get a tire test down in Texas. That was a good test for us as a new team to get to know each other, work with one another, get that communication with everybody that we talk about. We talk about it all the time, but it's so important to be able to go there and get that under our belts. We've been down here in New Smyrna (Speedway) and the Daytona test for three days and we were at Disney World before Christmas. We were able to test a lot and work with one another, as far as Brian Pattie, my crew chief, and I, the engineers and everybody on our No. 15 car. I think that -- I ain't going to say we're 100 percent ready. I'm going to say that I'm pleasantly surprised how far we've come in a short amount of time. I feel like we're ready to get the year started and we're ready for the challenge. I think that everybody knows what we're up against. We've got a lot of ways to go, but I feel like they're not near as far off as one would think."
How did the signing of Scott Miller impact your decision to join Michael Waltrip Racing "Scott Miller (executive vice president of competition, Michael Waltrip Racing) being there was my comforting factor in my decision making and everything. That was my common ground that I know his thought process, I know what he did for RCR (Richard Childress Racing), the organization that he created within RCR, so I kind of know the path that we're going down because I've known that. I've seen what he did when he moved into that role at RCR. I'm excited about what's going on, the direction MWR is headed and my teammates. Martin Truex (Jr.) and I raced one another in the Nationwide Series. I've got a lot of respect for him. Mark Martin -- that was the asset that came after, long after my deal was already signed up and done. I get that laid on me, 'What do you think about Mark Martin for a teammate,' and I'm like, 'Holy cow, are you kidding? That's exactly what we need.' It's going to be a huge asset for all of us."
How is Mark Martin as a teammate? "Mark, it's his work ethic. There's not too many 50-year-old people that can run in a young man's game. His work ethic is the reason why. His determination, dedication to the sport is the reason he is able to do that at the age that he is. He's in better shape -- I'd put his physical condition up against anybody in this garage area -- anybody. Everybody knows Carl's (Edwards) workout regimen and everything that he does -- I'm telling you, Mark Martin, I'd put him up against that. That's the reason he's able to do what he does and stay on top of his game and stay honed in on what he's doing. And then, through that dedication, it's not just physical conditioning -- it's way more than that. When I'm testing at Texas, the man called me three different times, 'What's going on? What's it feel like? What are you fighting? What are you good at? Where's your strong points? Where are you struggling?' I was like, 'Wow.' I'm not used to having that kind of relationship. I mean, Jeff Burton and I have a very strong relationship -- talked a lot, but to have that with such a new teammate right off the bat just opened my eyes to how things should be."
What do you expect to get out of the Shootout? "I've got to work -- I have a new spotter, I've got a new crew -- we've got to use this as a practice session and put it toward the big race on the next Sunday. But we're here to win, man. The Bud Shootout is a big race. I haven't been able to win it and I want to win the damn thing."
Will we see two-car drafting or pack drafting at Daytona? "I don't know that NASCAR's done -- they're going to answer to the fans. The fans spoke out. They asked for a change. They didn't like this two-car tango and NASCAR's going to answer that, one way or another. I think they've done a lot of good things to get to that destination. Have they got all the way there? Time will tell, but something -- I don't think they're just going to allow -- if they don't have it fixed, I don't think they're just going to allow it to be what it is. They're going to answer to the fans and take care of our fans and put on a show of what they're asking for."
Have you thought about what it would be like to actually win the Daytona 500? "Yeah, I have. Just what it would mean to you. This track -- I mean everybody, even you guys, the media, when you come here there's just something about it when you pull through the tunnel. I always look at that bank and just have a feeling. It's like, 'This is incredible.' This is the granddaddy of them all and it's the one you want to win and until you win that race you don't ever give up on that feeling. I'd say that feeling would happen even after you won it. Everybody wants to win this baby bad."
How demanding is the Daytona 500 mentally? "This race is way more mentally exhausting than it is physically. It's a mental nightmare the whole time trying to figure out -- you're in a traffic jam, you're trying to figure out how to get out, how to get through the traffic jam. I was a fan of the two cars because you could control your destiny and your outcome of the race and I know that doesn't sound right, but you could. When they were three and four-wide and you're coming up through the pack, you could have a run 30 miles an hour faster and you'd get to them running three-wide and there's nowhere to go. You're stopped and you just ride there until a chain of events happens and you move up one link and then you move up another link in the chain and you just -- there's no flying through the field like there is now. You can get a run with somebody, you're talking to them and you're like, 'Come on, baby, we're going low. Now we're going high. Follow me. Come on. Come on. Come on.' You're just constantly working and I liked that aspect. It was something to focus on and work on and hone in and correct your skills and get them right for the end of the race when the time's right. And, we we're able to do that pretty good in the last few races and I think, unfortunately, that's going to be different this next time around."