MICHAEL WALTRIP, NO. 15 NAPA CHEVROLET MONTE CARLO: HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT THE YOUNGER DRIVERS LIKE DALE JR. AND KEVIN HARVICK? WHAT DO THEY BRING TO THE SPORT? "They bring enthusiasm and a fresh face, fresh outlook. I love talking to those...
MICHAEL WALTRIP, NO. 15 NAPA CHEVROLET MONTE CARLO:
HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT THE YOUNGER DRIVERS LIKE DALE JR. AND KEVIN HARVICK? WHAT DO THEY BRING TO THE SPORT? "They bring enthusiasm and a fresh face, fresh outlook. I love talking to those guys to see what they have to say. I am not old but I feel old because I have been racing so long. All of these young drivers will add a lot. But Dale Jr. is going to have to face racing me until he is my age. There are a lot of what the media calls old guys like Dale Jarrett and me that will be around for years to come."
CAN YOU DESCRIBE WHAT IT TAKES TO WIN THE DAYTONA 500? "Yeah, but then everyone would know, so I can't answer that. But I will tell you the key is having a great car. There are a lot of people in the garage that have the ability to win this race as they do anywhere we go, but a great car is the difference. I came down here many years without all the weapons I needed to be successful here, though I learned something with every effort. I was reflecting (Thursday) morning that this is my 20th year I have raced Daytona. I sat on the pole 20 years ago for the Dash Series race, so this could be the longest drought between poles by any driver in the history of the sport at a particular track if we could go and get our second pole on Sunday. It takes a lot of experience, a lot of knowledge and a great car to win the Daytona 500. Natural ability with a great car can get you there too, but more than not in a race like the 500 you have to have the combination of car and experience."
WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO WIN THE DAYTONA 500? "It is more than just starting off the season with a win. It is an event that people don't forget for a long time. At the end of the year, someone may say, 'Who won Rockingham?' They won't forget who won the Daytona 500. It's fun for me today to be introduced as the winner of the Daytona 500."
WITH POINT'S BEING BACK TO ZERO, A CLEAN SLATE, WHAT KIND OF CONFIDENCE LEVEL DO YOU HAVE RIGHT NOW? "I feel really good about what is ahead of us. I am overly confident we can win the Daytona 500, but better than that, I think we can go to Rockingham and be competitive and to Las Vegas, then to Atlanta. I have a great Busch team and the relationship between the Busch and Cup teams is incredible. We feel like that will be an advantage."
HOW ABOUT A FITNESS PROGRAM? WHAT ARE YOU DOING? "I usually start on New Year's Day and spend January and February getting where I want to be physically. For me, physical strength gives me great mental strength. Like the marathons I ran in 2000. I did that to be a better race car driver. I wanted to make sure that on a hot day at Darlington in September, my competition might out run me, but they won't out last me. That is always my goal and it works. It is an edge for me. This year I have been a little more serious. I have been reading a book by Oprah's guy...Bob Green. It's a book about a way to live. I have been following his ideas and exercising daily. I want to be a skinny race car driver, not a fat race car driver."
WILL YOU RUN ANOTHER MARATHON? "I don't know. I've always wanted to run another one, but I got away from it for a while. With where I am at mentally, maybe I will. If I do, it won't be until the end of the season."
TAKE US ON A LAP AROUND THE TRACK... "Staying on the white line is the way to go. There are big bumps exiting turn four and a big dip in the middle of turns one and two. All those are significant factors when you have 43 cars in a bunch. You can handle anything when you are driving by yourself at 184 miles per hour, but when you have a bunch of cars around you; it's easy to lose your momentum. It's important to me that I have all that I need to try my case - my case being the Daytona 500. I think that I understand everything about the track and everything about the draft since I have run every restrictor plate race there has ever been."
DALE EARNHARDT WAS GREAT AT DAYTONA. DID HE TEACH YOU ANYTHING OR DID YOU JUST LEARN ON YOUR OWN? "I didn't learn any one particular thing from Dale, but I sure watched him do some really cool things and when you watch someone do things you didn't think of, you store that and hope to remember its application. I remember one time at Talladega, I did everything perfect in a Busch race, I think in 1993, and I got on the outside of Dale and he just got right up next to me and squeezed me up next to the wall. He took all my momentum, and everyone followed him and he won the race while I finished eighth. That is one of many examples I could tell you that backs up what I was saying before about experience. I guarantee you; I have never lost momentum on a restrictor plate race because I got squeezed against the wall since that day at Talladega.
"No one thing was more important than the conversation we had on the morning of the Daytona 500 that I won. He told me, 'We have to win this race together. It's not about one car anymore, it's about teaming up.' You saw Tony Stewart push Dale Jr. last fall to win Talladega. Tony did what he had to do to get the best finish he could. Bobby Hamilton pushed Dale Earnhardt to the finish line in 2000 to win. People are just very naive if they don't use teamwork to win the Daytona 500 or any restrictor-plate race. Earnhardt laid out a plan. He said, 'Me, you and Dale Jr. can win this race together, but we have to do everything it takes to commit ourselves to each other. If you are in the front, we are with you. If I am in the front, you are with me.' His foresight was amazing. I remember when they had that big wreck and the red flag with 25 to go. Me, him and Junior sat there; one, two and three. He had more knowledge about what was going to happen at these tracks than anyone did and used that to his advantage to win a lot of races. I have tried to pattern myself like that as well by making sure I have every fact in order to initiate the perfect plan to be successful at Daytona."
WHAT DO YOU SAY TO PEOPLE WHO SAY, "DON'T YOU GET BORED OUT THERE RUNNING IN CIRCLES?" "I just laugh because I am like an onboard computer. Every inch of the way I am feeling every bump. I am trying to figure out where to put my car in order to pass the next car. Every second I just try to suck up all the information I can in order to make decisions. Sometimes it is hard to fight the temptation of a possible move, but that is part of the experience - knowing when to go and when not to go."
ARE YOU FOCUSING ESPECIALLY HARD ON THIS DAYTONA 500 SINCE IT IS POSSIBLY THE LAST DAYTONA 500 WITH ITS EXISTING RJR SPONSOR? "I have been focused on the Daytona 500 since November, and the story about Winston leaving the sport did not come out until this week, so my thinking is no different than any year. That being said, any partnership as strong as NASCAR's and Winston's, where they have brought a sport from almost total obscurity to one of the top sporting events in the world, then what they have accomplished is simply incredible. It will be sad if RJR cannot continue this sponsorship, but if it is a business decision, it does not reflect on our sport. Someone as strong and as committed to NASCAR will come along and build on Winston's amazing foundation."
DO YOU THINK MOST TEAMS ARE PREPARING FOR THE DAYTONA 500 OR THE ENTIRE SEASON DURING THE OFF-SEASON? "You try hard for a combination of both, but if your test doesn't go well for the Daytona 500, then you shift it to the front burner quickly. You don't turn your back on the 500 and say, 'We'll get them the other 35 races.' This is a huge event. The 500 is great for our sponsors, it is great for the sport. It gets so much national attention, so everyone wants to win this race. Being a great crew chief is being a good delegator. There is always a lot of shuffling and manipulating cars and people as the year progresses especially if by the middle of January things aren't going as well as you had hoped. In our case, we had a great test. We were able to then put the 500 car aside, tweak on it, paint it and load it up and focus on Las Vegas and beyond."
IS THERE A "DON'T DO" AND "DO DO" BETWEEN YOU AND DALE JR.? IS THAT WHY YOU WORK SO WELL TOGETHER? "We just seem to have a silent bond. We never talk about it. We never have a plan, because if the other people out there try to screw up your plan, you have to change it without talking about it. We seem to understand the draft equally as well and we seem to wind up in the front on our own. We usually have to work to get to the front separately and then once we get up there we work together. At that point, we have proven we have made the right decisions and our cars are stout enough to get to the front. Then we use each other to stay there."
WHAT CAR DO YOU HAVE HERE? IS IT THE SAME ONE YOU WON WITH TWO YEARS AGO? "We are so fortunate. We left Daytona, February 2001 and NASCAR kept our car at Daytona USA. Then we raced the remaining three plate races in 2001, plus the four plate races in 2002 including the Pepsi 400 win in July with the same car. We never wrecked it. We never had to start from zero again. 'Slugger' (crew chief Richard Labbe) kept tweaking it and tuning it, so when last year was over and we had just won in July and ran well at Talladega in October, we knew what our baseline was. We took that car and put it aside. It had served us well. We took our new car and developed it slowly and precisely based on all of the tweaking Slugger did. There is no way that the 2002 car could be better than the one we will run in the 500. Gosh, that is a great feeling."
YOU'VE DONE SO WELL HERE IN THE LAST FEW YEARS, ARE YOU SURPRISED YOU ARE A FAVORITE TO WIN THE DAYTONA 500? "No, I feel good about it. I was so confident about running the 2001 Daytona 500. No one really thought much about our chances, except us; then we won. Last year, I had the same mentality. We won the 125 race and we were leading the 500 when we had a failure on a part of our car, which kept us from defending. Once again, that same state of mind is present and I feel good about winning again."
DO YOU BUY INTO THE THEORY THAT THOSE WHO DO WELL IN THE DAYTONA 500, DON'T DO WELL IN THE CHAMPIONSHIP RACE? "No, I choose to believe it is coincidence."
ARE YOU FOR OR AGAINST HAVING TO PIT EVERY 35 LAPS BECAUSE OF THE FUEL SITUATION? "I am all for it. At Daytona, it will really add an interesting twist to the Daytona 500. In the past, three pit stops and we were done. There was not a whole lot of shuffling with the order. Now, we are going to see guys having to decide whether they want to come on pit road and wait the extra time it will take to get four tires or shoot gas and get two tires. I had a pretty good thing going the way it was, but I think NASCAR has made the right decision. Unfortunately, every time you visit pit road, there is an added chance of getting hit or making a mistake. As a driver, I am not excited about multiplying the possibility of a mishap, but as a fan or the media, I'd be thrilled about the change, because it will be exciting."
DO YOU WANT TO SEE THE DAYTONA 500 GO UNDER THE LIGHTS? "Nope. I am a bit of a purest. Some races should not be messed with and I think the Daytona 500 is one of those."
WHAT DID YOU DO IN THE OFF-SEASON TO GET YOU AWAY FROM RACING? "I don't choose to get far, far way from racing. I love what I do. I like to get up early in the morning. I read Jayski and NASCAR.com - all the news about our sport. I am never too far away except when Macy (five-year-old daughter) climbs into my arms or hugs me. Then, all is lost. I really enjoy being at home with my family."