DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – On Sunday, 53-year-old Michael Waltrip closes the book on one of auto racing's strangest chapters when he takes one last ride in the Daytona 500 before returning to the safety of his broadcasting perch.
Waltrip possesses the most complicated personal history in this most famous of auto races. As he puts it: “I’ve faced the range of emotions that humans probably aren’t designed to face. It all happened within 10 seconds. That’s hard to think about. Hard to figure out.
“But I love Daytona. I’ve been coming here ever since I was a kid. Every time I talk about coming to Daytona I get a big smile on my face, which is crazy. That’s racing, I guess.”
In 10 seconds in 2001, Waltrip went from jubilation to grief, from long overdue race champion to a footnote to a tragedy that changed the sport forever. That spring afternoon, he won his first of two 500s, breaking a 462-race non-winning streak, only to have his team owner, friend and icon Dale Earnhardt die on the last turn of the last lap.
Riding just behind Waltrip and son Dale Jr., protecting their rear, Earnhardt was tapped from behind and sent into the outside wall. The greatest star in the sport died at the site of its biggest race.
All these years later, as he contemplates his last ride on this monster track, Waltrip has had time to flesh out a philosophy about that moment.
“It’s just what I live with. I wouldn’t call it haunting. It’s my life. I accept it,” he said.
“We have a number of days when we’re born that we’re going to live. Everybody has that number. That was Dale’s day. I was the perfect person to win because I just wanted to give him the credit. I still honor him by giving him the credit. And I will say 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 drive off to win the Daytona 500 and then you’re in heaven right after that. I wish I could have gotten a hug from him and everything had turned out different. But that’s just not the way it was meant to be.”
Fully half of Waltrip’s NASCAR Cup victories were of the Daytona 500 variety. He is like racing’s version of golf’s Andy North, the broadcaster who as a pro only seemed to win the big one (two U.S. Opens).
And when Waltrip won his second 500 in 2003, that one was rain-shortened, and thus diminished in another way.
“I know I got the trophy and the check and they didn’t shorten either one of those,” he said.
“Obviously I’d rather the highlight of my Daytona 500 win be like Denny’s (Hamlin, last year’s winner, in the closest 500 ever) – that beautiful move that wins the race. That’s just not the way it is. I know on that day the fastest car on that day won the Daytona 500. We led the most laps, and we were the fastest car.”
You know you’re getting too old to drive when you complain about the noise of the race car. “They’re just obnoxious," Waltrip said of the roar. "I guess I’m getting old because it really gets on my nerves,” Waltrip said.
And you’re definitely out of the driving mainstream when you have time to come up with ideas to better the sport like putting brake lights on race cars and making their roofs a uniform color with large, plain numbering on that palette, so he can tell the cars apart.
Don’t be surprised if Waltrip puts a plastic flower on the antenna of his ride Sunday so he can find it (first he’ll have to install the antenna).
But for one more Sunday, Waltrip will be a racer and get to put a period on his convoluted chapter of Daytona 500 lore.
“I don’t know how it will affect me,” he said. “I’m looking forward to it. I’m thankful that I get to drive.”