Texas: GM - Michael Waltrip interview

This week's NASCAR Winston Cup Teleconference featured Michael Waltrip, driver of the No. 15 NAPA Chevrolet Monte Carlo and his crew chief Richard "Slugger" Labbe. As the series moves to Texas Motor Speedway for the Samsung/Radio Shack ...

This week's NASCAR Winston Cup Teleconference featured Michael Waltrip, driver of the No. 15 NAPA Chevrolet Monte Carlo and his crew chief Richard "Slugger" Labbe.

As the series moves to Texas Motor Speedway for the Samsung/Radio Shack 500, Waltrip sits in 4th place in the point standings.


WITH TWO 9TH PLACE FINISHES AT TEXAS, ARE YOU LOOKING FOR BETTER THINGS THIS WEEKEND? "We feel good about our efforts that we'll take to Texas. Our cars have been really good. We were good at Las Vegas. We feel like Texas is more like Vegas and California maybe, than it is (like) Charlotte. The turns are banked significantly, but the transition from the straightaway to the turns is smoother. There is not a whole lot of loading the car like you feel at Atlanta or Charlotte or some of those places. We feel good about our set-up and about our thinking as we head toward Texas."

AT THIS POINT IN THE SEASON, IS THIS THE KIND OF YEAR YOU EXPECTED OR DID YOU EXPECT EVEN BETTER THINGS? "We didn't expect to run bad at Atlanta. That's been a really good track for me over the years. And we didn't expect to run bad at Rockingham. We didn't perform very well at either one of those places. We think things could be a lot better. Our performance at Vegas was right on target. We felt like we could be really good at any type of track, whether it be flat, banked, or whatever. We went to Darlington and had a good run there. We had a fast car but just ran out of laps. All in all, it's been okay. We're really proud that the longevity of the car is there. We're able to complete all the laps. Even though we got in a bit of a problem on Sunday (at Bristol), we were able to persevere and come out in 25th, which was not good but it was certainly a lot better than it was looking early in the going."

WITH ALL THE COMMERCIALS YOU'VE BEEN INVOLVED IN LATELY, HAVE YOU NOTICED THAT RACE FANS AND NON-RACE FANS VIEW YOU ANY DIFFERENTLY? "We're real fortunate that we get to work with some really creative folks (like) the people that do the NAPA commercials. And at DEI, Teresa (Earnhardt) has to approve all the NAPA commercials and how they're shot and what their content is. Between DEI and NAPA, the creativity on those spots is perfect. Darrell (Waltrip) and I have a bit of creative liberty with the Aaron's commercials. We enjoyed the opportunity as brothers to goof-off and make commercials. That was fun. The Domino's shot was something involving my family. Just so everyone knows, that little boy that pops up at the end is not ours. We rented him or he was an actor or however you want to say it. We just borrowed him because we didn't have one the size that they needed. The other two girls are ours and Buffy (Waltrip) and I obviously (are) in the commercial. And Coke does great commercials every year. Their stuff is really fun to be a part of. I've enjoyed the experience of getting to make a few commercials - especially when you have good material to work with. It gives me an opportunity to get into it and try to lend some of my personality to it. I'm just blessed that I have sponsors that like using the sport - and in particular, me - to try to move their products. I'm real happy to be in this situation."

DO YOU SEE THESE COMMERCIALS AS A WAY TO ENHANCE YOUR CAREER? "I see it as part of the program. Right now, I'm a race car driver. Racing cars on the track is the most important part of my job. It always has been. But this is a way to accentuate that. It just accents what we do. A lot of folks don't get those opportunities and I'm thankful that I've got them. Whether it's the TV shows we do on Mondays or if I'm involved in trackside on Friday nights or whatever opportunities are there, I like to take advantage of them right now. My window of opportunity - you never know how long it will be open. I want to do everything I can in order to take advantage of it. I want to make Michael Waltrip, the race car driver, as popular as he can be - not for Michael, but for the sponsors."

WITH BOTH THE ATLANTA AND TEXAS TRACKS BANKED AT 24 DEGREES AND LAS VEGAS HAVING LONG FLAT CORNERS, WHY DO YOU THINK VEGAS IS MORE LIKE TMS? "The transitions from the straightaways to the turns at Texas are so gradual. At Atlanta, we fly down into those corners and hit those high-banked turns. At Texas, it just doesn't feel that way. I know when they designed it, they said it was just like Charlotte but it wasn't. If they say the banks are 24 degrees, I guess we'll have to go with them on it. It's nothing like Atlanta. And it's nothing like Charlotte. What you feel inside the car is more like Kansas City. I guess that would be a better comparison. Vegas is really unique. It's nothing like anywhere (else). That statement was probably incorrect. The turns are quite flat at Vegas. But Kansas and Chicago, that feels a ton like Texas. But neither one of those three feel anything like Charlotte or Atlanta."

IF TEXAS IS INDEED A SLOWER TRACK, DO YOU THINK THE RACING WILL BE BETTER?) "Oh, yeah. If we were running 180 mph there, it would be a lot better than 190 mph. And 170 mph would be better than 180 mph. You only have so much room to operate. When you run around that track at 190 mph, that makes your room to operate that much less because you're going so fast. If you slow the cars down, it gives us room to move around in the corners. You don't have to be on such a fine line. Anytime the speed slows down, it does help racing. The reason why you hear drivers say that as a track seasons and gets some time on it, it loses grip. When it loses grip on the bottom of the race track - which is the absolute fastest way around - then it forces you to start looking around for some other way to go and whether you need to run up high on the race track. It just opens up options and makes the racing much better. The worst friend to a race track and a race in particular is new pavement. And Texas, being messed up from the start -- first of all with the design and second of all with water running out of the turns - has been repaved about every time we've been there. That hurts the competitiveness of the racing because of the narrow line that you have to run around the track. You can run high on new pavement, but you'd just be going slow. The groove is right on the bottom and all the grip is there so that's where everybody needs to be. When the track loses some of that grip and you start to search around for lines, that's when you start seeing the best racing."

BECAUSE OF THE PAST SUCCESS OF DEI'S RESTRICTOR PLATE PROGRAM, DO YOU FEEL INVINCIBLE WHEN YOU CLIMB INTO A DEI CAR OR DO YOU HAVE A DIFFERENT MINDSET? "No, I don't feel invincible at all. But I do feel like before it's all said and done that I'll be part of the story. (I feel like) we'll be able to fight our way to the front even if we fall to the back or whatever, we will definitely be part of the story and be one of the cars that you'll have to beat to win. I've always felt that no one could do it better than me at a restrictor plate track. For many years, I just didn't have the cars to do it with. Yet I took cars that quite frankly didn't qualify well and didn't seem to have a whole lot of speed, and was able to take those cars and run up to the front with them. And now I've got a car that's awesome. It's probably the best car there is out there. With that and my knowledge of the draft and what it takes to be successful at a place like Talladega, I just think it's a real good combination for me."

WHY DO YOU THINK THAT YOU, THE DRIVER, IS SO GOOD AT RESTRICTOR PLATE TRACKS? "That's a good question. I have a lot of experience at drafting. I've been doing it for many years. There's nothing that happens that surprises me. There's not a situation that I don't see where I need to be. I see right where I need to be as we're racing. I make very few mistakes drafting because of my knowledge of where I want to be. But the main reason why we're talking about our success at these tracks is the car. They've given me a car that I'm able to do all that stuff with. No matter how much you know -- if your car won't go then you can't do it. I've just taken a good car and coupled it with a lot of experience and knowledge of what goes on at most tracks and been able to have some success with it."

ARE YOU WATCHING THE WAR ON TV AND KEEPING UP WITH IT WHEN YOU CAN? "I'm watching it right now. I watch it all the time. I have a lot of compassion for the troops - the men and women that are over there - and for their families that are here and clinging to every bit of news that they can get. I feel for them. I think all the drivers are alike that way. It's just a part of life today. You race cars on the weekend and when you're in the car, you're focused on that. But any time I have to chill out, I do it watching the news."

DO YOU KNOW ANYONE PERSONALLY THAT IS FIGHTING THE WAR? "I don't know anyone closely. One of the teachers in our ministry, Motor Reaching Outreach, has family in Iraq. My wife went around to a bunch of the drivers and gathered up postcards pictures and hats and they're sending a package to them. My little five year-old wrote him a note. It almost seems personal when you know someone who is related to somebody over there."

ON YOUR COMMENT OF SLOWER IS BETTER AT TMS, WOULD IT BE BETTER TO DO THAT AT ALL THE TRACKS? IF SO, HOW WOULD YOU SLOW THE CARS DOWN? "Yes, I think it would be better. The second part of your question is how you would do it is the reason why we haven't done it. Nobody has a good idea on that. What we're working toward and what might be our first line of attach as far as figuring out how to do it is in the area of aerodynamics. NASCAR has done a nice job of matching the cars up now where they're all basically the same shape. Now we can go in and cut the spoiler off or raise the front air dam up and slow these cars down on the straightaway. I believe that what should happen is that the front air dam should be raised to10 inches from where it is now, which is 3 1/2. That's a huge number and people would say that's ridiculous. The cars would just go slower. They wouldn't be sealed to the road so they would go slower down the straightaway. They'd go slower through the turns because they wouldn't be sealed to the road. The difference between what you have when you're by yourself and when pull in behind another car wouldn't be as extreme as it is now. With our cars sealed to the road in the front and with our low valance height, we're basically scrubbing the valance all the way around the track by having soft springs in the front we've got them sealed to the road. When we pull in behind a car, we're going from being dependent on air to push the car down and hold it in the turns, to not having that because we're following someone.

"If they would do nothing else - don't touch the rear spoiler, don't worry about the tires - just make cars that have front air dams on them 10 inches high and go test it. I promise you, that would be interesting. I think they would gather information there that would bring success in slowing the cars down. And it would affect all cars across the board the same. That's what I'm for. I think we should conduct a test at Charlotte - or maybe a place like Kentucky would be better - where the surface is smooth and the cars do run on aero-dependent set-ups, raise that valance up to 8 or 10 inches and go try it and see what you get."

HAVE YOU EVER OVERRULED YOUR CREW CHIEF ON PIT STOP DECISIONS? "The last time I remember doing that was at Martinsville 2000 when I ran third. It was a long green flag run and they told me to pit. For a couple of laps, I just acted like I didn't hear them. I just felt like I was running so good and I thought there's got to be a caution. But if the race goes 175 laps without a caution, what makes you think it's going to go two more without a caution? It's kind of silly to think you can guess that way. But at Martinsville that day, I did guess that way and indeed the caution came out. It kept us from going down in the race. So, that was crazy. I try not to do that. It's better to pit when your team says. They have an overall view of the race. When you're sitting in your race car and you can report to them what you want as far as adjustments on the chassis goes, (but) they're seeing what everyone is doing. They're watching it closely. When they tell me to come in, I come in. Now if I'm on the back straightaway and I see some guy starting to smoke or something fall off of his car, I ain't coming in. That would be dumb if I did. I think it's important for the team to respect what the driver thinks and it's important for the driver to respect what the team thinks."

DO YOU EVER GET FRUSTRATED WITH A CALL? "Yeah, but I just try to balance that out (because) I probably say some things or do some things that might frustrate them too. That's what that word 'chemistry' is all about. It's almost like having blind faith. If that's what he (crew chief) said, then that's the way we're going to go. I think that's the best way to operate if you want to have long-term success. If you want to overrule somebody and be in charge, you might have success then. But to be good throughout the whole season, you need to have comradery and mutual respect."

WHICH OF THE NON-WINSTON CUP TRACKS DO YOU TEST ON THAT YOU FIND ESPECIALLY VALUABLE? "Kentucky's a great track because it's like a lot of tracks we race on. So we're able to do a lot of things at Kentucky that will directly compared to California, Michigan, Las Vegas, or Chicago. It relates to a ton of tracks. That's the track that gets used the most. Other than that, there aren't many. There's some short tracks around North Carolina and even down in Lakeland, Florida that guys go to to try things out. But Kentucky is probably the benchmark as far as test tracks go. NASCAR is in a tough position. They could say no testing at any track that has a Truck or Busch race. But I promise you, if they did that eventually some team would build a track and use it for testing. So, NASCAR has a delicate situation on their hands with limiting testing and trying to keep the cost of racing down."

DOES YOUR TIME IN THE BUSCH CAR HELP YOU IN THE CUP CAR? "I think it helps me a lot. I can learn things to do with my Cup car because of my Busch car, and I can learn things not to do. Mainly what makes a Busch program successful and able to accent the Cup program is success. If you go out there on Saturday and you win the race or you're up front all day long, you kind of prove that what you thought was going to be right on Sunday will be right. You feel good about your set-up if they're close to each other. It's a place to try things. When it works you can develop it into the Winston Cup car. I enjoy the Busch experience and being able to race on both days."

Richard "Slugger" Labbe interview

-gm racing-

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Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Michael Waltrip