News & Media

For Waltrip, winning the Daytona 500 stil is everything

February 17, 2012, Dave Rodman,

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Michael Waltrip knows a couple things about the Daytona 500 like, how to win it, how important winning it is to a driver's career and mostly, in 2012, how to maintain a streak of consecutive starts in the Great American Race.

If he's able to qualify for the 54th annual Daytona 500, it'll be Waltrip's 25th consecutive start.

"It's just a special race. ... Everybody brings their best stuff."


Waltrip, the owner/driver who already had three teams locked into the season opener -- for Martin Truex Jr., Mark Martin and Clint Bowyer -- made a last-minute deal with new team owner Mike Hillman, in conjunction with Joe Falk, whose start-up team struggled to make four races in 13 2011 attempts with rookie driver T.J. Bell.

Waltrip, who won Daytona 500s in 2001 and '03 driving for Dale Earnhardt Inc., also has experience in missing the 500, which he did in his initial try, in 1986.

"It's just a special race," Waltrip said Thursday at Media Day. "It's hard. Everybody brings their best stuff. They've had a couple months to tweak on it. Everybody's mindset is 'win at any cost. It's the biggest race ever, let's go win it [and] we'll worry about points later.'

"Very seldom does [worrying about points] happen. Everything is about winning here at Daytona. We've seen a lot of interesting things over the last 10 years in people getting to Victory Lane. Mark Martin coming up just a foot short a few years back, Trevor Bayne's big upset last year, Jimmie Johnson winning in '06 without his crew chief -- event after event that makes this place something special."

Just how hard and how special it is to win the race is borne out by the fact that in the 10 races since Waltrip's initial 2001 score, he is the only driver to win it again. The past 10 Daytona 500s is the longest streak in the race's history without a repeat winner.

Obviously, Waltrip knows how hard it is to win it once, never mind multiple times.

"Well, you look at the people who haven't won it, then you have to think there's a pretty good chance that it won't be a repeat winner for a while," Waltrip said. "I'm kind of liking it because only a few people have won it more than once. I'm fortunate that I'm one on that list."

Martin, defending Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards, and Kurt and Kyle Busch are among the notable competitors who have never won the big one at Daytona, despite winning multiple other events at the World Center of Racing.

In that regard, Waltrip has one wish that would be a pretty popular one. In 2001, Dale Earnhardt Jr. pushed Waltrip to his win while Dale Earnhardt suffered fatal injuries in a Turn 4 wreck right behind them. At Daytona that July, Waltrip returned the favor, pushing his then-teammate to an emotionally charged victory.

Earnhardt Jr. won the 2004 Daytona 500, but he's currently mired in a 129-race losing streak that stretches to June 2008. "It would be a pretty cool story to see Dale Jr. win it," Waltrip said.  "It's such a special place for he and I back in the day, and I'd like to see him celebrate here."

Waltrip knows just what it would mean, no matter who's celebrating in Victory Lane a couple Sunday nights from now.

"You have to win [the Daytona 500] -- it's a must for a NASCAR driver," Waltrip said. "I know Tony [Stewart]. I know how much it meant for him to win that World of Outlaws race last year. He'd been trying to do that for a long time.

"It would be the same with the Daytona 500. I think that's a great way to tell the story. There's things you're passionate about and he had competed in World of Outlaws and never won one. It was something that he had to do. He's competed in the Daytona 500, one of the greatest sporting spectacles in the world, and he wants that to be on his list."