'Mikey' Waltrip reaching NASCAR icon status

Posted: Thursday, July 18, 2002

The biggest names in NASCAR -- Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Dale Jarrett, Bobby Labonte -- each drew a roar from the sellout crowd at Chicagoland Speedway, even if the ovations for Gordon and Stewart were mixed liberally with boos.

Lesser drivers got polite applause and a sprinkle of cheers during last Sunday's prerace introductions.

One of the loudest ovations, however, was reserved for a guy with two Winston Cup victories in 516 starts during an 18-year career.

Thirty-nine-year-old Michael Waltrip is quickly reaching icon status among NASCAR fans.

Many know him familiarly as ''Mikey,'' a nickname he has accepted with typical good humor: ''It's better than a lot of other things they could call me.''

For most of his formative years in NASCAR's top stock car series, he was simply known as Darrell Waltrip's little brother -- somebody who was going to have a real hard time living up to the exploits of a three-time champion and one of the sport's all-time victory leaders.

Like Darrell, he's a good talker, funny and bright -- especially on his weekly gig on Speed Channel. Unlike his older brother, now a full-time TV personality, Michael is still trying to find true success behind the wheel of a race car.

''I never tried to be Darrell,'' the younger Waltrip said. ''He's 16 years older than me, more like a second father than a brother.

''He set a great example, but I'm Michael, not Darrell.''

For years, Michael was considered the best driver never to have won a race. His career became that of a classic journeyman -- good enough to race but never one of the elite.

That's when his good friend Dale Earnhardt took a chance and put Waltrip in a third car at Dale Earnhardt Inc.

In his first race for Earnhardt, he won the 2001 Daytona 500. It was the most bittersweet day of his life.

As he began to celebrate in victory lane, word came that Earnhardt had wrecked badly on the last lap. When it became clear that the seven-time champion and the sport's biggest star was dead, Waltrip's celebration ended and the grief began.

''It should have been one of the greatest days of my life,'' Waltrip said. ''Instead, it's one I hate to think about.''

With his friend and mentor gone, Waltrip struggled to gain the success that Earnhardt had predicted. A pair of seconds were his only other top-10 finishes and Waltrip ended the season an undistinguished 24th in the standings.

Through the early part of this season, other than a fifth place in the Daytona 500 and a second at Talladega, the tracks where Waltrip and teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. are always the favorites these days, there wasn't much more to cheer about.

Waltrip's No. 15 Chevrolet wasn't competitive and the talk began that he would be looking for a new ride in 2003.

''I didn't feel any pressure,'' Waltrip said Sunday, before the Tropicana 400. ''I don't need any insurance policy, just a fast car.''

Ty Norris, vice president of DEI, provided some insurance anyway, announcing that Waltrip was given a new contract for 2003.

Norris has been in the center of the storm over the generally poor performances by Waltrip, Steve Park and even Earnhardt Jr., who has fallen out of the top 10 in the points.

''It's been difficult for all of us, but Michael has shown the most class of anybody I've been around in this time,'' Norris said. ''He said, 'Don't worry about it. Let's perform at the racetrack and we'll get our heads together,' and he put this team up on his shoulders, and that's why we're standing here today.''

Norris gave Waltrip high marks for not only his driving ability but his leadership.

''He likes to be involved in decisions just as much as Dale Jr.,'' Norris said. ''It's really key for our team to have someone like Michael who owns a team himself and has been around the business as long as anybody and is still young.''

Waltrip said his team, with crew chief Slugger Labbe playing a key role, began to turn things around long before he won the Pepsi 400 on July 6.

In the seven races since the Coca-Cola 600 in May, Waltrip has four top-10 finishes, including that joyous second win and a fourth at Michigan.

''It's been a steady progression,'' Waltrip said. ''We've got some chemistry on the team and we're using the resources that DEI has. I've been able to leave the track each week with a smile because, even when we blow an engine or have some other problem, I know we're building momentum.''

It's a new feeling for Waltrip, coming to the track each week knowing he can win.

''It has to be reality for me to be confident,'' Waltrip said. ''I have to really believe it can happen. Confidence over my career is something I've probably lacked the most because I saw the reality of the situation.

''A lot of times in my career, I've been more concerned with who was behind me instead of who is in front of me,'' he added. ''Now, I don't care who is in my mirrors, they're not going to pass me.''

The hard, cold numbers of his career no longer bother Waltrip, either.

''If I can run off 10 or 12 wins over the next couple of years, my numbers wouldn't look very different from a lot of other cats.''

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