Daytona 500: Michael Waltrip preview

Waltrip and New NAPA Team Look to Return to Victory Lane at Daytona Daytona Beach, Florida (Feb. 16) -- About the only thing the same with the No. 15 NAPA Chevy for '05 is the driver and the sponsor. The NAPA team showed up for Daytona with a...

Waltrip and New NAPA Team Look to Return to Victory Lane at Daytona

Daytona Beach, Florida (Feb. 16) -- About the only thing the same with the No. 15 NAPA Chevy for '05 is the driver and the sponsor. The NAPA team showed up for Daytona with a brand new Monte Carlo and a much-publicized new crew. However, Michael Waltrip and crew chief Tony Eury Jr. are relying on their combined three Daytona 500 victories in the last four years to start the season off right.

"Driving for a team like Dale Earnhardt, Inc. I always feel like my chances for a win at Daytona or Talladega are outstanding," explained Waltrip, driver of the No. 15 NAPA Chevy. "I just feel really honored to go racing with Tony (Eury) Jr. and these guys. Those guys won a lot of races last year and they have really welcomed me with open arms."

Michael Waltrip, a two-time Daytona 500 champion and the all time money winner at Daytona, faced disappointment in last year's race after a mid-race wreck collected the NAPA Chevy causing it to flip on the backstretch. Waltrip's new crew chief Tony Eury Jr. faired better as he called the shots when Dale Earnhardt Jr. posted his first Daytona 500 victory. Both Waltrip and Eury Jr. have tasted victory lane at Daytona and they both know what it takes to get there. This week, amidst a continued media frenzy over Dale Earnhardt Inc.'s crew swap, both look to revisit victory lane together.

"This track has become a part of me over the years," admits Waltrip. "I jog around this racetrack. I think about driving through that tunnel. It becomes a part of you. When I won the Daytona 500 in 2001 it became a bigger part of me, and then again in 2003. I feel like my whole life to some extent has been woven around this place. When I was eight years old we used to load up in the back of our Chevrolet Impala. I used to lie up in the back windshield and sleep while mom and dad would drive all night to get us here in time for the 125's on Thursday. I remember looking at all of those action shots in the Daytona Beach News Journal. Its something I have dreamed about since I was a kid."

Michael Waltrip arrived much earlier for Thursday's races this year. On Sunday he posted the 33rd quickest qualifying time for the Daytona 500, while teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. qualified 39th. While the lackluster qualifying times of the DEI cars turned some heads in the garage area, Waltrip is confident that the way his car handles in the draft can bring him to the front. Waltrip and Earnhardt Jr. will start together in the first of Thursday's Gatorade 150 qualifying races.

"We (DEI) stumbled a little bit last year working together as much as we had hoped, but by the time we got back to Daytona in July and on to Talladega we were running up front and helping each other," said Waltrip. "Dale Jr. and I are buddies and we understand this deal. We both know that the common cause is greater than the individual rewards. We will be right there and hopefully we will be able to win again."

Michael Waltrip Fast Facts...

* The No. 15 NAPA Chevy will start 18th in the first of Thursday's two 150-mile qualifying races

* Michael Waltrip has visited victory lane three times in NEXTEL Cup races at Daytona, twice in the Daytona 500 and once in the July race

* Waltrip is the all-time highest money winner at Daytona with earnings of $5,137,940

* Waltrip will drive a brand new No. 15 NAPA Chevy (Chassis 33) in Sunday's Daytona 500. His backup chassis (Chassis 30) is the Chevy that Dale Earnhardt Jr. drove to victory lane at Talladega in '04

* Waltrip completed the Las Vegas Marathon (1/30/05), the cornerstone of his OPERATION MARATHON fundraising campaign, with a time of 3:59:23, achieving his target time of under four hours

In Their Own Words...

Michael Waltrip

How important will communication be with your new crew?

"A very important part of what we do is to make sure the communication is where it needs to be. I think as we race into 2005, after last year being such a disappointing year, we really needed something new and different on the NAPA team and DEI gave us that. I am real pleased with where I am at and where we are at as a team."

Has running your marathons helped make you a better driver?

"It has made me more physically fit for sure but what it has done the most for me is made me mentally tougher. Now I realize when I start a race I don't care how hot or long it is, it's going to be better than running for four hours on my feet. When you sit down and do something for four hours it is certainly easier than doing it on your feet."

Drivers are often critical of plate racing, what is your take on it?

"The way I look at it is, they are going to have the Daytona 500 and the cars are going to have plates on them so why wouldn't you like it. If you don't like them then you need to get over it. This is our biggest race. There are going to be a lot of people who turn on the TV and watch, and a whole bunch of people here in Daytona checking it out. It is going to be over the top excitement and action and I am going to be all up in the middle of it."

Tony Eury Jr.

With the new qualifying rules, will you use the 150's as more of a test?

"I really like the new setup because in the past you have seen guys that are 20th in points go home for reasons like getting in an accident in the 125's or having a motor blow during qualifying. Now you know you are in the race, but really we have always used the 125's as a test. You want to go down there and win one because it sets an example going into the 500 but you definitely use it as a test. Nobody shows their full hand until you are in the 125's. Then you find out real quick where you are at going into Sunday's race."

What is your biggest concern during a race at Daytona?

"Getting on pit road is my biggest fear. You can come on pit road leading and have someone run over you and then you are out. If you run up front where you need to be then chances are you aren't going to be in the big one. But someone can knock the fender off of your car getting in or out of the pits, it's so small and can easily happen. My job is to get him in and out on pit road. That's where I have the most control. The rest of it, whatever happens is going to happen."

-dei-

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About this article
Series Monster Energy NASCAR Cup
Drivers Dale Earnhardt , Dale Earnhardt Jr. , Michael Waltrip , Tony Eury Jr.