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Retro Racing: Waltrip's first Cup win came in '96 All-Star Race

May 20, 2011, Mark Aumann, NASCAR.com

The Wood Brothers withdrew from Saturday night's Sprint All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway with the word that driver Trevor Bayne is still not 100 percent healthy. But fifteen years ago, Michael Waltrip drove one of the Wood Brothers Fords to an amazing upset in the 1996 Winston Select.

That night, Waltrip put himself in the right place to take advantage of a rare bobble by Dale Earnhardt that caused both Earnhardt and Terry Labonte to slide up the track, giving Waltrip a clear shot to the lead. And once given that opportunity, Waltrip set sail for the finish line, beating Rusty Wallace by some 12 car-lengths.

"I got a cool trophy and a whole lot of money, so they can say what they want."

--MICHAEL WALTRIP

Because NASCAR considers the mid-season race an exhibition with no points awarded, Waltrip didn't actually break into the official win column for another five years. But $211,000 and a trip to Victory Lane was more than a fine consolation for the first driver to win after having to race his way into the field from the qualifier.

"I got a cool trophy and a whole lot of money, so they can say what they want," Waltrip said that evening.

The younger brother of three-time Cup champion Darrell Waltrip had already gone though a 10-year winless drought when he was signed to drive the Wood Brothers Ford in 1996. He had won a pair of Winston Open qualifiers in 1991 and 1992 and seven Busch Series races, but he was 0-for-309 in Cup points races when the circuit stopped in Charlotte on May 20, 1996.

The top-five drivers in the 50-lap Winston Open qualified for the Winston Select, and Waltrip made it by the skin of his teeth, finishing fifth behind Jimmy Spencer, Lake Speed, Hut Stricklin and Jeff Burton. But he wasn't happy with the car, and his crew did everything it could think of to make the No. 21 Ford better between the two races.

"I was never happy with the car, ever," Waltrip said. "It was terrible in the Open and little better in the first segment."

More changes were made between the first and second segment as the field was inverted, but "that wasn't any good, either," Waltrip said. Waltrip was still able to finish fourth in the second segment, so for the final 10-lap sprint, he found himself next to Rusty Wallace and behind Earnhardt and Labonte.

"So for the last segment, we put a [spring] rubber in the left front, and if I'm not mistaken, changed the air pressure and changed the track bar again," Waltrip said.

It was exactly what Waltrip's car needed, as it turned out. NASCAR officials waved off the first restart when several cars, including Wallace, were cited for jumping the green. The second was much more even, as Earnhardt and Labonte stayed side by side for the entire first lap. By then, Waltrip cleared Wallace for third and had a front row seat for what was to come.

As the two leading Chevrolets headed into Turn 2, Earnhardt's No. 3 wiggled and both he and Labonte skittered up the track in an effort to keep from wrecking each other. And suddenly Waltrip had the opening he had waited for.

"[I had] seen it on TV a hundred times," Waltrip said. "I was just sitting there thinking, 'This could be good for me. I'm sitting right where I need to be.' And I'll be darned if it didn't happen, and I hooked me a left and once I got out in front, they wasn't going to catch me."

Wallace followed Waltrip through for second but spent the rest of the race trying to fend off Earnhardt and Mark Martin as Waltrip steadily added to his cushion.

"I was scared to death, running scared," Waltrip said. "Then I remembered that I won a race here in 1993 with one of the toughest drivers ever, Ernie Irvan, right on my bumper for about the last 20 laps. I said, 'OK, you did it once. You outran Ernie. Just be smooth and steady and you can outrun these cats.' "

He did, winning by 1.052 seconds, and for that night finally reveled in the afterglow that comes with finishing first. But he also kept things in perspective.

"It felt pretty cool to win, and I sure want to do it some more," Waltrip said. "But I'm not all of a sudden going to think I'm a lot smarter than I was yesterday."

"... Whether you win a race or not, it doesn't matter in life."

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.