Daytona 500: Michael Waltrip preview

Daytona Beach, Florida (Feb. 6) -- "As we head into a new season there are a lot of unknowns, but we've had a lot of success at Daytona (International Speedway) and while the rules package is a little different than in 2003 we are comfortable that...

Daytona Beach, Florida (Feb. 6) -- "As we head into a new season there are a lot of unknowns, but we've had a lot of success at Daytona (International Speedway) and while the rules package is a little different than in 2003 we are comfortable that the No. 15 team will be right there along with our teammates (No. 8 team)," explained the defending Daytona 500 champion. "Dale Earnhardt Inc. teams seem to be the favorite and maybe that is because this place has always been a favorite of mine. It takes me back to my childhood of coming here as a race fan and a fan of my brother. My mom and dad would take me out of grade school to come to Speedweeks. Now,as a competitor, that feeling is rekindled. I felt that way before we won the Daytona 500 and now that I have won it twice the feeling is magnified - I can't wait. To have the chance to win it a third time is unimaginable.

"When I come to Daytona I have an unbelievable amount of confidence. I was thinking during the test, as silly as it seems, that 'I am in the midst of blazing the trail to winning my third Daytona 500.' It's just that I have that much faith in my team and in myself to get the job done. We aren't just lining up for the Daytona 500, we are starting a path to the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup 2004 season. We are able to focus on the Daytona 500, but we are also thinking about Rockingham and Las Vegas and Atlanta.

"There is a bunch of ground work laid out for months and months to get everyone around you to believe in you. But at the Daytona 500 it is especially challenging mentally because of how you are trained to be perfect in this race. I know the NAPA team can not make a mistake. It is a race that is going to be won by the person that has the fastest car, makes the right moves at the right time and spends the least amount of time on pit road. With that pressure it becomes tough.

"I want to win the Daytona 500," continued Waltrip. "Since Dale (Earnhardt) hired me in 2001 that has been my agenda. We have done it twice and anything less will come short of our goal. I expect to have a car as good or better than anyone else's week in and week out. What gets me fired up is when the 2003 season ended, our performance was good whether we finished second in Phoenix, Ariz., or last in Homestead, Fla. I always know we will be performing the best we can."

QUESTIONS & ANSWERS WITH MIKEY

WHAT CAR WILL YOU BE RACING IN THE DAYTONA 500?
"The same car we won last year's EA Sports 500 at Talladega (Superspeedway) is the one we will run in the Dyatona 500. This is also the same car that we wrecked during pre season testing. Slugger (Labbe, crew chief) had the car rebuilt and took it to Talladega where John Andretti tested it for us."

WHAT HAS WINNING THE DAYTONA 500 TWICE DONE FOR YOU?
"I think back to when I was a kid and I used to come here to watch my brother. Everyone who has ever aspired to be a stock car driver wants to win the Daytona 500. If someone says that it's better to win somewhere else, then that tells me one thing for sure: they've never won at Daytona. It's the pinnacle of our sport. It's quite an honor and I don't take it lightly

WHAT WILL YOU DO WITH YOUR RACE CAR WHEN YOU GET IT BACK FROM DAYTONA USA?
"Teresa (Earnhardt) has kept the other one pretty close to the vest. It hasn't gone anywhere. I kind of suspect it'll go into display at DEI. We have some great plate cars today that have replaced that car. They're newer generation plate cars. They're better and they're faster. I doubt that car will race again. It will probably just become a trophy or a piece of memorabilia."

WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS ON THE CHASE FOR THE CHAMPIONSHIP?
"I think at the end of the year the fans are going to like it. The media is going to love it because they're going to have more to talk about. When the fans and the media like it, eventually all the hard-headed drivers are going to like it and start praising it."

WOULD YOU LIKE TO SEE DAYTONA BE THE LAST RACE OF THE SEASON?
"I don't know. I like Miami. As a whole, a competitor doesn't really care how they set them up or how they arrange them or what the points are or what the tires are like. When we strap our helmets on, we're going to forget all that stuff and go out and try to beat each other and try to be the fastest guy. I'm looking forward to getting on the track and getting with it. I'm tired of talking about it."

DO YOU HAVE A LOT OF CONFIDENCE AT DAYTONA?
"Yeah, I do. I'm going to go to Rockingham, N.C., and Las Vegas, Nev., with a lot of confidence as well. We finished up 2003 with finishes over the last 13 races that averaged 28th or so. But our car performed. We were top-five at Phoenix. We won Talladega. We had a great car at Rockingham and broke. We had a great car at Homestead but blew a tire. So the performance is there. This is a performance-based business. That's all it is."

WHAT DOES WINNING AT DAYTONA DO FOR YOUR CAREER?
"It's done a lot for my career because I hadn't won anywhere else. We all saw what it meant to Darrell Waltrip when he won it back in '89. And what it meant to Dale Earnhardt when he finally knocked it down in '98. It's a huge event and I'm real thankful for the success I've had here. There is so much to be optimistic about. Becoming a winner on the NEXTEL Cup Circuit has made life easier and busier. My life is consumed by racing. It is who we are and what we are, so success just makes it more fun."

WILL DAYTONA ALWAYS BE DAYTONA NO MATTER HOW THINGS CHANGE?
"The Daytona 500 is what it is because of the tradition and history of this great event. People have been coming out in February since 1950 to watch this great race. It would be hard to ever change that."

WHAT'S THE CHALLENGE AT DAYTONA?
"Oh, you've got to be perfect. You have to be as good as you can be every lap. You can't make any mistakes. Nothing can go wrong with the car. The pit crew has to do their job on pit road. The driver has got to be game-on from the time the flag drops. There's a lot of pressure you put on yourself to make sure you don't make any mistakes and you make all the right moves. One wrong drafting move late in the race can take you from the top two or three cars to 20th. You can't recover from that. You just have to be smart and not make any mistakes. The main thing it takes is a fast car. You can overcome a lot of shortcomings if your car is fast. But you can't overcome them all, so you can't make any mistakes."

MORE THAN THE OTHER DRIVERS, DO YOU GO TO DAYTONA EXPECTING TO WIN?
"I like to be realistic and say there's probably a good chance we can win this race. It's hard to be over-confident when I was zero-to-462 at one point. So I try to keep my balance. I understand that things could go wrong and I might not win it. That was the case here in July. I felt like I was going to win that race, but things happen that are out of our control. So I just balance it as best as you can."

WHAT IMPACT DO YOU THINK NEXTEL CAN MAKE IN THIS SPORT?
"Look at the Super Bowl. Dale Jr. and I were in a commercial in the middle of the Super Bowl. That's something that a series sponsor hasn't been able to do in the past. Obviously it's good for our sport and brings more attention to what we're doing. I think there were 80 million people watching the Super Bowl and there Dale Jr. and I were, goofing off in the middle of it. NEXTEL is going to be a great partner to NASCAR racing."

OUT OF THE HANDFUL OF DRIVERS THAT COULD WIN THE CHAMPIONSHIP, WHICH ONE WOULD YOU PICK TO DO IT?
"I would pick me. I'm going to run the season like I'm the favorite and like we're going to do the job. It made me mad with the way we performed at the end of 2003. Nobody out-performed us at the end of the season. We just had everything go wrong. We have to start 2004 like we did in 2003 and make sure that doesn't happen."

WHAT DO YOU THINK OF THE 125 QUALIFYING RACES?
"It's different when there is half the amount of cars. When there is twice the amount of cars, it means twice the action. The bigger the draft, the more responsive your car is to the draft. It'll be the first true test of what it's going to be like as far as the draft goes. I'll use the 125s to make sure my car is handling right."

DO YOU ENJOY DOING COMMERCIALS?
"I do. I've been fortunate enough to do enough of them and work with great production companies that let me try things. I won't make a commercial now if I'm not comfortable with it, or if I don't think it's funny or that it makes any sense. We've been working with people that let us have a little creative control over them."

WHAT DO YOU SEE YOURSELF DOING WHEN YOU'RE NO LONGER DRIVING FULL TIME?
"I have 100 acres at home and I really like goofing off there. I really do. It means a lot to me. I think I'd want to do TV. Darrell (Waltrip) has a pretty good deal. He owns a Truck team and runs three or four races. He does TV for half the year and yesterday was his 57th birthday. I don't know anybody who is so fortunate to have all that. So that wouldn't be bad. I'd do what Darrell's doing right now"

WHAT DO YOU DO TO PREPARE FOR THE SEASON?
"I work out a lot. I'm a runner. I've run in three marathons over the past three or four years. I lift weights and do all that just to be ready to drive a car. I did marathons because I figured if I could do one in four hours and 10 minutes, it wouldn't matter how hot it was at Darlington (International Raceway) in September or what it was like at Bristol (Motor Speedway)on a Saturday night. If I'm tough enough to do that, I might not outrun them, but I can sure outlast them."

-dei/napa-

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About this article
Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Dale Earnhardt , John Andretti , Darrell Waltrip , Michael Waltrip