Daytona 500: GM Racing first practice notes

MICHAEL WALTRIP, NO. 15 NAPA CHEVROLET MONTE CARLO: [Waltrip turned the second fastest lap in Saturday's first practice for Daytona 500 qualifying, trailing only his teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr.] ON BEING SO STRONG RIGHT OFF THE TRAILER "We...

[Waltrip turned the second fastest lap in Saturday's first practice for Daytona 500 qualifying, trailing only his teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr.]

ON BEING SO STRONG RIGHT OFF THE TRAILER "We tested well and tested realistically. We didn't try to fudge or cut any corners. We ran our car to see what it would do and every time we took it to the track, it was among the fastest cars. After the inspection process they went through yesterday, I had a lot of confidence because we didn't lose any of our car. I would have been really disappointed if we weren't good, because I knew we would be."

ON EARNHARDT, JR., POSTING THE FASTEST PRACTICE SPEED THIS MORNING "We didn't think he tested quite as well as we did, but we were there on two different weeks with different weather conditions, so you don't ever know what all that means. We didn't know where he would shake out. We knew he would be toward the top, as would [Steve] Park, who ended up seventh quick (in that practice). We didn't know Junior would be on the top of the charts and we didn't know we would. We just knew we would be among the fastest cars here."


DOES ALL THE HYPE AND PREPARATION FOR THE DAYTONA 500 CAUSE ANY ANXIETY AT THE TEAM LEVEL? "Well, it's a big event and it's special. You should take extra time and put extra effort into it. You hope that through some of the things that you learn for Daytona, you can also apply to other racetracks. One of the things that I love about having the resources that we have at Hendrick Motorsports is that we're in a position to be able to focus on Daytona and not slight ourselves anywhere else and do the proper testing and wind-tunnel testing and all the things that go into making sure that when we leave here that we're fast at Rockingham and that we're fast at Vegas. I think that's why we're usually a threat for the championship, year-in and year-out because we know how to prioritize things."

IS SUCCESS MORE A PRODUCT OF HOW YOU DEAL WITH FAILURE? "You're going to lose a lot more races than you're going to win, so you'd better learn how to accept the defeats and appreciate the wins. You never know when your next win is going to come. I think the way you handle the losses is what sort of molds you into being a champion. A fifth-place, even though it's not a win, is still big when it comes to the championship."

ARE YOU HAPPY WITH THE WAY YOU OVERCAME YOUR DRY SPELL LAST YEAR?) "Absolutely. To get that weight off our shoulders was huge. I felt like I won my very first race. I hope that if we can do any different this year, that we can win earlier in the season. It's so nice to get a win under your belt early in the season. I know how difficult it gets the longer that you go - the more difficult and the more pressure that you put on yourself and everybody else puts on you."

AFTER EXPERIENCING "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE," WOULD YOU LIKE TO DO MORE ACTING? "Well, if you would have watched the show you would have realized that I'm not an actor. But, it was a fun show. I normally don't have five or six days to do something like that. It just so happened to work out. The invitation came. I debated about it. It just all started to fall together and it was a no-brainer to do it, and I'm so glad I did it. I would love to do something like that again.

"But, I'm a race car driver first. Don't ever mistake that. But, I like it when fun, exciting things come along that I get a chance to do."

DID YOUR PERSONAL LIFE BECOME MORE OF A DISTRACTION LAST YEAR THAN YOU THOUGHT IT WOULD? "Yes and no. There are some things in life that you don't expect. I'm usually pretty good at handling things that I know are coming. But, when things are kind of unexpected it's difficult. I didn't maybe think it was going to be as big of news as it was. There's no doubt that that stuff was a distraction - more of just the actual events going on more so than the media. That didn't bother me near as much as just trying to work through a personal issue in my life. But, I still have a hard time believing that breaking a rear-end gear at Sears Point had anything to do with that."

YOU SEEM TO BE HAVING MORE FUN THAN YOU USED TO... "It has nothing to do with whether I'm married or not married, or whether Brooke is in my life or not in my life. It has to do with the fact that I found myself backing into a shell and realized that it just wasn't healthy. I just want to be myself a little more, and other people have made me see who I am. Maybe it's just maturity; maybe it's getting older - I don't know what you want to call it. But, life is too short not to enjoy it, especially when you've been given the opportunities and the blessings that I've been given. I've won four Winston Cup championships and have made more money in this sport than anybody else out there. I've experienced more highs than most people in this sport and I don't know if I really enjoyed it the way I could have or should have. What I'm realizing, too, is that life is not all about winning. It's not all about money. You've got to enjoy life and relax and not let all this little stuff get to you because life is just too short to worry about those things."

ARE YOU ENJOYING YOURSELF MORE NOW THAN YOU DID WHEN YOU WERE IN YOUR EARLY 20s? "I think when I was 22 or 23, I was trying to act like I was 45 or 50. I'm not saying that didn't help me get a long way in this sport. But, now I'm 31, 32, and I want to get back some of those years."


WHAT WILL IT TAKE FOR YOU TO CRACK THE TOP 10 THIS YEAR? "We're 15th right now and that is how I'm approaching the beginning of the season. The idea of 14 drivers standing between us and the championship is challenging, but it's very attainable. Staying with the same team is an important element.

"This will be my third season with this team and that is going to pay off. I'm convinced that longevity is a key element to success. We're going to have to continue to focus on the things that we don't do so well or our weaknesses, but capitalize on the things that we do do well. Things that we do well as a single-car team is that we have undivided attention and focus every week and we give little consideration to being the small team among the group and give a lot of consideration to the fact we're representing Tide and Pontiac - two companies that have a rich, rich history in this sport - and we need to maintain that.

HOW DO YOU DEAL WITH EXPECTATIONS THAT ARE PLACED ON YOU? "I have absolutely no consideration to the expectations with the exception of my own. And, I don't even know what they are or if they exist or who's they are.

"I'm 36 years old. I've always tried to remain realistic. I've tried to remain optimistic. But, it's so important to understand where you are. 2001 and 2002 were very rewarding for several reasons. The obvious is that we won and in this business - there are only 150-something drivers that can ever say they've won a Winston Cup race. I'm proud of that. That is something that I had worked my whole life for and had I not gotten that opportunity, would have felt a void forever. And, there were times in 1999 and 2000 when I certainly questioned that. Those were the lowest points of my racing career. They were terrible. That was a terrible feeling. But, I certainly benefited from it in a strange sort of way and became very hungry again. The things that were rewarding for me were the credibility the Cal and I re-established. It's so important in business - and in life - to have credibility. I think it's unfortunate that you're judged so much by statistics and performance, as opposed by who you are or what you are. But, that's the real world. That is the real world. You are judged on performance. You'd better accept it, you'd better understand it and you'd better get over it. That's what I really did in '98, '99 and 2000 when I was not performing.

"We've had two years where we've built credibility and we've run well, and all that has done for me is fuel the fire to the point where I know I've got four good years left. That's the timetable I've given myself. I say at 36, the next four years will be the best. After we won at Martinsville I said to my team and the world, the next five years will be the best of my career. I've got the most experience. I've seen it all, I think, I hope. I've been around the block enough. I've still got some youth, some enthusiasm, some energy. I've got my health, which I didn't have a few years ago, so this is it. [I said' the next five years will be my best, and I'll be darned if the first year wasn't my best. Now, to exceed last year we know we have to improve and that is how I approach it.

"It's a long answer to the question, but I'm really not affected by the expectations, other than my own, which are pretty high. My expectations are not to win the championship this year. I want to and I want to try and I want to contend, but I don't think that is reasonable for us to expect to win the championship this year. However, I would be disappointed if we finished 15th or worse because I would not necessarily recognize that as improvement."


AS A FORMER WINNER OF THE DAYTONA 500, IS IT ALWAYS SPECIAL TO RETURN TO DAYTONA? "Yes. It's the absolute place you want to come to. I know last year I came [here]. I was with a team, tested here, the car didn't test very well and they elected not to come back, which obviously hurt me very badly because I've only missed this race a couple of times through the qualifiers - once, wrecked and one times I got oiled down. I've never really had a car that was capable of qualifying on speed. I've always raced my way in, so it hurt me not to come to Daytona.

"This place is special to me. I believe I know what my needs are. I can win here and I look forward to coming here every year."

HOW DIFFICULT ARE THE DAYS BETWEEN POLE DAY AND THE QUALIFIERS ON THURSDAY? "For myself, it's become a lot easier because I've only come here one time with a car that was capable of getting in on speed. I come here knowing that I'm going to have to race my way in and I come here to enjoy myself and absorb everything that is going on, and to just have a good time. Then, come Thursday morning, you come in there ticked off. You come in there knowing that you've got to get the job done. You've got about a six-hour ordeal to go through from the morning time - worrying and thinking - and getting ready for that race because your week can end right there, so you've got to come in there with a game face on, be very, very smart and make good choices."

-gm racing-

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About this article
Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Teams Hendrick Motorsports