Darlington: Michael Waltrip race report

Darlington, S.C. (March 16) - In preparation for the annual March event at Darlington Raceway, the NAPA AUTO PARTS team tested the 1.366-mile race track known as the "Track too Tough to Tame" in February. Pleased with their track time and what...

Darlington, S.C. (March 16) - In preparation for the annual March event at Darlington Raceway, the NAPA AUTO PARTS team tested the 1.366-mile race track known as the "Track too Tough to Tame" in February. Pleased with their track time and what they learned during the test, the team spent the majority of their first practice working on race runs instead of qualifying runs. Despite the lack of qualifying practice, Waltrip qualified ninth.

"Guys from my team were telling me I needed to run a lower line through turns three and four," said Waltrip, "but I had been pushing a lot down there. During my qualifying lap, I was able to adjust my line a little bit and it stuck better. It was just a really good handling car when I tried to qualify. It wasn't 'Ryan Newman fast,' however. It was just OK. The car pushed a little bit."

Waltrip made contact with the turn two wall in Saturday morning's second practice session. The damage to the NAPA car was significant enough to force the team to switch to a back-up car.

"Something happened to the right front," Waltrip explained. "It felt like I hit something on the straightaway, but there wasn't much I could do about it by the time I got to the turn."

The secondary car was run at Rockingham (started 22nd and finished 19th) the second race of the season, and was one of the cars Waltrip tested.but, the car made no laps before the green flag waved on Sunday.

Waltrip lined up on the fifth row where he qualified, but slid back to the 43rd position before the start of the race because the team was racing a back-up car.

Three cautions in the first 25 laps allowed crew chief Slugger Labbe to make a hero-like strategy call to stay out on the racetrack when half the field pitted on lap 11. This move placed the NAPA Chevrolet in the 18th position. When a caution flag waved again 12 laps later, all but two cars pitted. Waltrip solidly held the 16th position after three pit stops and 28 laps. It was from this position that Waltrip showed pit strategy wasn't the only reason the NAPA car was moving forward.

Halfway through the 293-lap event, Waltrip moved into the ninth position. Three long runs benefited the NAPA team, as they were three tenths faster than any car on the track after 35 laps. Waltrip carefully avoided a Darlington stripe and moved diligently through the field. With three laps to go, Waltrip passed his Dale Earnhardt, Inc. teammate to secure the fifth position where he finished.

"We had a good car in the long run, for sure, but 53 laps (at the end) wasn't quite enough," Waltrip said. "If it had been a 70-lap run to the end or a 60-lap run, we were coming. But, it just took us a little while to get going. I think old guys do that. They want to be like a tortoise and be there at the end and the young guys do the 'hare' deal. They run out of going power late in a run. That's my philosophy.

"The end of that race was fun. It's a great racetrack. This is the kind of racetrack we need. Tracks that are real wide and real easy to drive, somebody hits the setup. At a tight, little, narrow place, it just seems like everybody slides into each other.

"I knew we had a good car when we stayed out on that early caution. The first two or three laps we ran felt terrible. Then, we had that caution and we stayed out. A bunch of guys behind me pitted, we ran a couple laps and they couldn't go anywhere on me. I held my own and began to gain on them. I knew right then, we were going to be strong. I said, 'We've got something for them today.'"

Ricky Craven and Kurt Busch raced to a photo finish. Craven inched Busch for the win while Dave Blaney and Mark Martin finished third and fourth respectively.

The NAPA team has three top-five finishes in the first five races and holds the third position in the Winston Cup championship standings. Waltrip trails point leader Matt Kenseth by 62 points and second-place Tony Stewart by five points.

The NASCAR Winston Cup Series will race at Bristol Motor Speedway next Sunday at 1:00 p.m.

-dei-

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About this article
Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Dale Earnhardt , Matt Kenseth , Tony Stewart , Michael Waltrip , Kurt Busch , Ryan Newman , Ricky Craven , Dave Blaney , Mark Martin