INDIANAPOLIS -- Another winless season, another vote of confidence. And so it goes for driver Michael Waltrip.
In 19 seasons on the NASCAR Winston Cup Series, Waltrip never seriously has faced the prospect of being unemployed. When he leaves one team, others welcome him with open arms. When sponsorship dollars get tight, his personality seems to pacify the stingiest of corporate bean counters. And when car owner Jim Mattei started double-clutching in his desire to be a major player on the stock car circuit during the past few months, Waltrip's future was rescued by another owner with deeper pockets.
Job security, it seems, is not based on checkered flags.
Waltrip, the younger brother of three-time series champion Darrell Waltrip, will be making his 450th career start Saturday in the Brickyard 400 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. His first 449 starts have yet to produce a victory, and he has just 21 top-five finishes. A year ago, Dale Jarrett won the Winston Cup Series Championship with 24 top-five finishes in 34 races.
Each change spawns new confidence for Waltrip and his race team. New owner Jim Smith not only brings a new wallet full of money, but also a racing background, a new state-of-the-art 28,000-square-foot shop and a plan to park the new Chevrolet Monte Carlo and replace it with the new Ford Taurus in a couple months.
''When I first bought this team a few months ago, I said then we were going to build the best possible race team we could,'' Smith said. ''The first thing I had to do was try to get in there and figure out what was going on. Why weren't they running well? There are three things that make successful race teams:
Don Coble - Nascar Columnist
''One, is to surround yourself with good people. We have, and we're getting better all the time.
''Two, is a great engine program, and we have the answer for that.
''And of course, three is the (aerodynamics) program.''
Sponsorship, which is the biggest challenge for most teams, isn't a problem. NationsRent recently extended its deal with Smith's Ultra Motorsports team through the 2002 season.
Smith, who's been a car owner on the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series circuit since its inception in 1995, likes what the new Ford has to offer. That's why his team is working to turn their fleet of Chevrolets into Fords. He hopes to have the conversion complete by October. The team's engines will be built by Roger Penske.
''We haven't had the pieces I feel that it takes to do the job,'' Waltrip said. ''Other people have better stuff. Obviously, Rusty Wallace, Jeff Burton, Jeff Gordon those guys are awesome racecar drivers, but they've had more stuff to work with that I've got.
''Therefore, I never bought into the fact that I couldn't do the job because I knew I could. Now I will have more pieces to be more like them, and hopefully we will post better results.''
In 19 years, Waltrip said he's never had ''the perfect opportunity'' to be a consistent threat to win. His new team, he said, has the potential to change all that.
''I want to get in a car that is fast as anybody's and prove I can do it,'' he said. ''I've led the Daytona 500. I was leading Talladega when I broke. I led Bristol. I've been right there. And now, it's not like I'm sitting here saying, 'now I have to show' because I've shown I can do it.
''Not many people get the opportunity that I'm afforded, so it's real important to me to take advantage of it. I know both physically and mentally, I'm in the best shape I've ever been in to do the job.''
Smith's outlook is more direct.
''My goal for 2001 is to be a top-15 team with six to eight top 10s, three or four top fives and certainly one win,'' he said. ''That's my goal. If we achieve those, then we will have a successful year.
''The team didn't need to be rebuilt. It just needed a tuneup, and that's what we're doing.''
REACH Don Coble at email@example.com.
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