Daytona 500: Michael Waltrip Wednesday notes 2002-02-13

Daytona 500: Michael Waltrip Wednesday notes 2002-02-13
Feb 16, 2002, 11:45 PM

Michael Waltrip, driver of the No. 15 NAPA Auto Parts Chevrolet Monte Carlo, won the 2001 Daytona 500 and finished second to his DEI teammate, Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the 2001 Pepsi 400 at Daytona International Speedway. What do you think of the new ...

Michael Waltrip, driver of the No. 15 NAPA Auto Parts Chevrolet Monte Carlo, won the 2001 Daytona 500 and finished second to his DEI teammate, Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the 2001 Pepsi 400 at Daytona International Speedway.

What do you think of the new rules package?
"NASCAR had to do something. I thought it might be a good idea to take off half of the roof flap and half of the gurney flag and change it but not reconstruct it. But they chose to take the rules all the way back to the way they were in 2000. I think everybody is concerned that the race won't be up to standards of what they saw last year. We kind of created a monster. We did something that isn't good. But it was fun to watch. We're not crash dummies. We're human beings. You can't put us in that position.

"The old rules made it to where you could go anywhere. You could shoot it in a hole that wasn't there. When somebody finally had enough and decided to do that, then you had a huge wreck. We'll still be in a pack of 30 or 40 cars, I imagine. But instead of it being two-wide here at Daytona back 20 rows, hopefully it will be sorted out somewhat. I don't understand why everybody can't remember how exciting the Daytona 500 has been over the years when Richard Petty and David Pearson and Darrell Waltrip ran just the three of them racing for the win. Why do you have to have 40 cars in a pack to say it's exciting? We just changed the standards with some of the races we had over the last couple of years."

Why is DEI so dialed in on these superspeedways?
"We're dialed in everywhere. We just have great racecars and great engines. Dale Earnhardt put together a team that has really done the job. We're able to showcase it more at Daytona and Talladega because we can work together more. Those are two great places where we can take our great racecars and team up against people and make some really good progress. And we've done that."

Last year, did your win at Daytona set you up for disappointment afterwards?
"Yeah, it did. I thought I would do a lot better than I did last year. I was really disappointed halfway through the year. I was lost, basically. I didn't like where I was, didn't like how I felt, and I didn't like my attitude heading to the race track every week. But about three-quarters through the year I got a new crew chief (Richard Labbe) and we began to make some ground. And we went to Homestead and we could have won that race. And those are the things you want. You just want a chance as a racecar driver. But I was really thankful that the guys at DEI listened to me when I explained to them what I needed. And then they got what I needed. If we don't do better this year, I'll be very surprised."

Why is it so expensive to race and where does all that money go?
"I get a lot of it. The teams hire a lot of people. Obviously you can make a pretty good living these days as a crew member or a crew chief or as a driver. But the technology is expensive. The computer systems that we have on our cars when we go test just blow my mind. Five years ago there was nothing like this. People, technology, wind tunnel tests, and engine development all adds up. I can honestly see why it costs 10 or 15 million dollars. Ten years ago when it cost three or four million, it was easy to see that. You didn't have to buy everything you have to buy now. If you ever wondered where all that money goes, just come to DEI and walk around. We'll show it to you. It's all right there. And that's what it takes to have a good racecar."

As a racecar driver, has winning the Daytona 500 changed your life significantly?
"I don't know that it's changed it significantly, but it's changed it. Whether you're Michael Waltrip or Jeff Gordon or Richard Petty, you can't be the Daytona 500 champion without it having an impact on people around you. When I say that, I mean the race fans. They want to congratulate you for winning the biggest race of the year. It has changed people's perception of me. It's helped me to feel good about my career. It's like putting something good on your resume. Anytime you can do that, it's a good thing."

What are your emotions as you return to Daytona on the one-year anniversary of winning and of the Dale Earnhardt tragedy?
"I look forward to coming here. I couldn't wait to come here last July because I wanted to win the race. I feel the same way now. It's just where I want to be. I don't like answering a lot of questions about it and I'm not going to. But I'm very balanced and very emotionally centered on what I'm here for. And that's a good feeling."

How does it feel to be the defending champ?
"I didn't even think of that. It didn't even enter my mind until I got here and now I've heard it a couple of times. It just puts an extra bounce in your step. I'm happy to hear that. It feels good-especially when I consider all the great champions that have won this event before me. That's a neat deal. I was most happy when I came to Daytona about the opportunity to win it again because I knew my Chevy would run. The defending champ gig is just a little bonus.

Do you feel any pressure?
"I just feel real confident. I'm proud that I have a car that I can win with again. That's the coolest thing. The NAPA Auto Parts Chevrolet is fast enough to pull it off again."

What would be the ideal race conditions for the Daytona 500?
"Just a nice day. If it's sunny and 70 that's perfect. If it's cloudy and 70 that's perfect. You don't want it to be overly cold because the tires don't seem to stick real well right out of the pits, and you don't want it to be overly hot because it's hard to remain focused and conditioned. But I like it when it's hot because I think I'm in pretty good shape."

On his teamwork with Dale Earnhardt Jr.
"We had pretty good teamwork last year in all four plate races. We did really well together. I don't see any difference this year. We were out there in practice just kind of playing the game and figuring out what it takes to do what. We're going to make a few changes in our car and I think we'll be fine."

Do you know each other's moves?
"Somewhat. Sometimes you become a little lax and that's not healthy because he's a racer too. If I don't block every angle and take care of every opportunity that he creates, then he'll jump on me. It's important to know each other's moves, but it's also important to know that you're after the same thing and that's the checkered flag."

When is enough is enough with the rules changes?
"I think enough is enough when the conversations are centered around a quarter-inch on a spoiler. We're here to race. This is the Daytona 500. This is what we're all about. This is what we do. I think it's just crazy that we keep talking about it. I don't choose to get involved in it. I just go race my car and have a good time doing it."

Will everybody be bunched up in the race tomorrow?
"Oh definitely. If you watched practice, it's crazy out there."


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