Two-time Daytona 500 champ Michael Waltrip ready for final race

Photo by Yvonne Jones

By Aaron Bearden, Motorsports Editor

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – For most drivers in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, Daytona International Speedway is the World Center of Racing, the track all drivers want to claim a victory at more than any other.

For Michael Waltrip, however, Daytona is much more than that — the location of career validation and woe. Excitement and misery.

The highest of highs, and the lowest of lows.

It’s only fitting, then, that the 2.5-mile Daytona Beach, Florida facility will be the site of Waltrip’s final Cup series race in the No. 15 Aaron’s Toyota with Premium Motorsports — one final moment in a career that dates back to 1985.

For a time, Waltrip had considered ending his Daytona 500 career last season, but a disappointing result and the allure of the Daytona high banks brought him back for one final run.

“When we ran last year’s Daytona 500, it didn’t go well,” Waltrip said. “We didn’t run good — I guess we got in a little bit of a fender bender and messed up the car and I finished 30th, I think. I didn’t want to quit like that.

“I went to Talladega and we got a 12th-place finish, I ran up front a little bit. Then I decided we would try to have one more competitive run down here this year.”

Waltrip etched his name into Daytona lore on Feb. 18, 2001, when he ended a career winless streak of 462 races with a victory in the season-opening race, his first race with Dale Earnhardt, Inc..

At the time, the moment appeared to be one of the greatest stories in the history of the Great American Race. With brother Darrell Waltrip in the booth screaming, “Mikey!,” tears beginning to well in his eyes, the younger Waltrip brother had finally validated his career with a triumph on the sport’s grandest stage.

Then, the news came out.

NASCAR had lost Dale Earnhardt.

In the years since, Waltrip has struggled to come to terms with the events of that day, which is considered by many to be the darkest day in the sport’s history.

The Owensboro, Kentucky native dealt with depression and self-acceptance issues, which he highlighted in a book: “In the Blink of an Eye: Dale, Daytona, and the Day that Changed Everything.”

Waltrip has since come to accept his past, not blaming himself, and embracing it as part of his legacy, however painful it might be.

“I think we have a number of days when we’re born that we’re going to live,” Waltrip said. “Everybody has that number, and that was Dale’s day. Me winning was the perfect person to win, because I just wanted to give him the credit.

“I will say , though, as I get older … as you think about your day coming up, it’s a pretty good day when you’re watching your two cars to drive off to win the Daytona 500, and then you’re in heaven right after that.”

Waltrip reached victory lane three more times over the following two seasons, once at Talladega Superspeedway and twice more at Daytona, including a rain-shortened victory in the 2003 Daytona 500 that he could actually celebrate.

It’s moments like that day, not 2001, that Waltrip looks back to as he treks back to Daytona Beach as a driver for one final time.

“I try not to get reflective or nostalgic because it’s just too emotional,” Waltrip said. “Mostly I just think about getting to race a car. I’ve faced a range of emotion that humans probably aren’t designed to face, and all happened within 10 seconds.

“That’s hard to think about, and hard to figure out, but I love Daytona and have been coming here since I was a kid, so every time I talk about coming to Daytona I get a big smile on my face, which is crazy, but that’s just racing I guess.”

And as for Waltrip’s lasting impact, the 32-year veteran feels that his legacy is set, whether he adds one final victory to it on Sunday or not.

“When we close the books on this, it’ll say 11 XFINITY (Series) wins, one Camping World Truck (Series) win and it’ll definitely say four Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series wins,” Waltrip said.

“Maybe it’ll say five, but I qualified 35th, so unless our strategy is we got them right where we want them, they don’t even know we’re here, then we might be in a little bit of trouble on this one, but I’m looking forward to trying.”

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