NASCAR Winston Cup Series: Daytona 500
Topics: Daytona 500
February 16, 2003
DAYTONA BEACH, FLORIDA
MODERATOR: Michael Waltrip, your second Daytona 500 victory. This is a two-part question to get your opening remarks. Talk about your feelings, waiting out the rain delay, the celebration of your second 500, and also the pass that you made on Jimmie Johnson.
MICHAEL WALTRIP: The rain delay deal was pretty cool. I never really imagined that it would actually work out and keep raining. I thought it would quit and we'd have to go back to racing. I told Buffy, I said, "That's fine. I think I can win if we do that. We led the most laps, we're leading now. But I don't want to. I want it to stop right now. We've won it right now." It did rain. I was so thankful for the fact that we were leading when the rains came. It's crazy enough to try to figure out a way to win the Daytona 500. But who would have ever thought you had to figure out a way to win it after 109 laps. So, I mean, I just feel blessed that we were in the right place at the right time. As far as the pass goes, I had a plan. I hoped that Junior would jump the 33, and that Jimmie would try to race Junior, I could get over to the left behind Junior ahead of the 33 and get by Jimmie. You know, it worked. That's exactly what happened. But you can only really control what your car does. You know, I couldn't control whether Junior would jump the 33 and get ahead of him where I could fit in there, or Jimmie Johnson would try just to lay back and get behind Junior. I couldn't make those guys do that. But that was my plan, and it worked. I got lucky there.
MODERATOR: We'll open it up for questions.
Q. With the way the weather was developing, did you assume whatever happened on that restart was going to win the race?
MICHAEL WALTRIP: I didn't assume it would be the race. I knew, just like on the first lap of the race when I attacked and got the lead, I knew it was important to lead. I knew the best chance to pass would be on the start. Really my mentality was just to get the lead, not to think that -- I mean, they had a caution, you know, then it started raining. None of that was ever factored in. The main thing was just to get to the lead. That was my only thinking.
Q. You said in Victory Lane something about Dale Earnhardt's heart was in this place, and that's why winning here is so special to you. Can you talk about that a little bit?
MICHAEL WALTRIP: Well, I've been coming down here ever since I was five years old, watching speed weeks. I would drive down in the back of a Chevy with my parents, hang on that fence and watch Darrell. A lot of my life, a lot of things that are important to me, are encompassed in speed weeks. The history and the significance of this race took 45 years to build. I feel like at least for the last 30 some of those years, I've been right here watching it grow. When Darrell won it, that made it more special. When I won it, that made it more special. And when Dale Earnhardt won it in '98, it made it more special. So when he lost his life, that's just another chapter in the book of Daytona. You know, I loved Dale. He was my friend, so that made it even more endearing to me that he was doing what he loved to do and had that wreck. It didn't make me hate Daytona at all. I think it just made me understand that he was doing what he wanted to do when he had headed off. I think everybody hopes to be able to do that when they leave this world. I think if you ask Junior, this place is more special today to us because of his father. So what's cool is when you're at DEI, you understand that Dale wanted fast restrictor plate cars. That was his gig. He knew it took a fast car to have success here. People just have a little bit more bump in their step when they get ready to come to Daytona. They knew they better have, that's what Dale would expect. So many times his presence is felt at that place to where people are still motivated and driven by Dale's, what seems to be, presence.
Q. Back to the restart. When Junior got such a good jump on the 33, Fittipaldi, did that surprise you? It almost looked like it might have been by design. Was there anything worked out at all or was it just by chance?
MICHAEL WALTRIP: No, I didn't expect it. I just knew that Dale Jr. wanted his lap back and would be ready. I knew Christian hadn't raced here much, and might not be. So while it was luck that it worked, I also, you know, had a little bit of fact to back up my thinking. Then the main thing was, could I get in the hole fast enough, see if Jimmie had have left off, got behind Junior, then my fate would have been sealed. There was a point going into Turn 1 where he could have probably forced over, but I was close enough where he couldn't tell. That was my main concern, was if Junior did get a great start, would Jimmie throttle off and try to squeeze in a hole, I wanted to squeeze in.
Q. You had so many struggles in your career. The only race you had won really didn't count. You've come to DEI, you have three wins, including two in the Daytona 500. Can you talk about that?
MICHAEL WALTRIP: I had so much fun in the winter of 2000/2001 getting ready to drive for Dale. He'd say, "You'll win in my cars. You better win in my cars, my cars are good, you'll win in them." I was just in awe of the fact that it worked out for me to get in such a great ride. You know, I was just thankful that Dale -- Dale might have been the only one big enough in this world to get me this ride. Anybody else might not have been able to pull that off, short of somebody -- you know, I might have struggled along for a long time. I was good enough to start, you know, 462 races, which I always finished decent in the points. A team never did better after I left; they always did worse. So, you know, people that were insiders would say -- would probably tend to say, "He can do the job if he gets in the right situation." But it was pretty big that Dale started a team and convinced our sponsor, NAPA Auto Parts, that that's what we needed to do. I'm not thinking many people could have went to NAPA and explained that they wanted to start a new team and put Michael in the car and have them buy it.
Q. Jimmie Johnson or Kevin Harvick said when they saw the 8 car go out, they saw everybody push harder. How did that affect you when you saw Junior having problems?
MICHAEL WALTRIP: It just inspired me. It just made me say, you know, they say we can't win without teammates. Dale Jr. won on Saturday without me. It inspired me to win today without him, just to show people that, you know, they don't all know what's going on exactly.
Q. With all the attention being put on your teammate throughout the week, then later in the week the little verbal sparring between Dale and the RCR drivers, did that allow you to do what you needed to do without really getting distracted, you were able to work in the background a little bit?
MICHAEL WALTRIP: I don't think we are -- I don't think I am ever distracted by anything. I understand what I have to do in order to be successful, and I try to make sure that I'm mentally, physically, perfectly ready to do the job. When you're winning races, then you're happy. So I would have rather won every race like Junior did, and today. But it didn't affect me one way or the other. I thought it was kind of interesting that those folks got to arguing back and forth. I didn't really see any sense in all that. You know, you don't get these opportunities very often, to come to Daytona and be in the position that Dale junior and I were, or Jeff Green and Harvick and Robby were. So I thought that we should have just been relishing in the fact we had that opportunity and not arguing with each other. But if Jeff Green is on the pole and nobody's really paying him any attention, I guess he finally decided he better say something so everybody would know he's here.
Q. For a long time during the second rain delay, you sat out in the pit box with your wife, without any umbrella, cover. Why? What were you thinking? What was going through your mind?
MICHAEL WALTRIP: We just were enjoying a day in the rain in Florida. She was setting there. When I saw her, I just wanted to join her, ask her what she was thinking. We tried to call Helton to tell him that the state troopers and all the folks that worked the track were probably going to be tired if we waited much longer. I don't think we have his real number. I don't think he wanted to hear from us. We just were goofing off, laughing about the opportunity that we had here to be winners of the Daytona 500. That's when we talked about, you know, we don't need it to go on, we won, let's just stop now. Then I tried to explain to her that I'd win it anyway because I wanted to comfort her, but I didn't really know if I would or not.
Q. With all that this race means to you, the history of this place, were you getting nervous?
MICHAEL WALTRIP: No, I wasn't nervous. I try to be a person that doesn't worry about the weather because it either is or it isn't, it's going to be what it's going to be, so I don't ever try to predict it. I didn't know if it was going to keep raining or not. I looked over that way. Some big clouds coming. That made me smile. I watched Bob Stokes, Christian Dodd, all the folks on the Weather Channel today, weather expert Paul Colson (phonetic) and they seemed to think it was going to rain in Daytona, and once it started, it would be a lot. I'm a fan of the Weather Channel. I think it's funny that they can make a living talking about the weather, when I don't even really understand. It's like, "Let's go to Salt Lake City. It's sunny again in Salt Lake. Let's switch over to Reno, see what's going on over there." I guarantee, you Paul Colson (ph) hadn't been able to sleep two days because of this storm heading up the East Coast. That's big, when they get a storm, they have something to talk about. That's my thought on the Weather Channel. Not really relevant, I'm sorry (smiling).
Q. You've driven well, been very competitive at so many tracks over the years. Your only point wins are right here. What do you think is the reason for that?
MICHAEL WALTRIP: I won a Busch race last year at Michigan, dominated the Busch race in Atlanta and Rockingham some. I almost won some races at Darlington and other places earlier in my career, Atlanta. It just didn't ever work out. I feel like I am wrongly called, you know, only able to race on plate races. I don't think that's fair. It will just be a matter of time before I prove that that's not valid. I don't worry much about it. People have got to talk -- it's like when I won the Winston, I mean, the Winston is one of the biggest nights of the year, it's huge. The first thing someone asked me was, "This isn't a points race." When Jeff Gordon wins it, ask him if he gives a crap whether it's a points race or not. It's the Winston (laughter). I think that we will fare much better this year at other tracks. We're prepared to do so. But it ain't a bad place to win until you can get everything else worked out.
Q. You've been in a lot of these Daytona 500s. Did this have a strange feel, didn't feel like there was any continuity, bizarre things happening?
MICHAEL WALTRIP: It did to me leading up to it because, you know, I think the drivers were all a little bit nervous about not being able to pass. Then Dale Jr. comes from the back and wins the Shootout. The first 125, everybody was lined up in a line, nobody passed except entering pit road. "Yes, there it is." Second race, we raced all over the top of each other. I don't think the competitors had a good feel or idea as to what to expect exactly today other than it was important to be in front. Mine and Slugger's realization of that, significance that we put on that, I think is the reason why we won the race, because we got gas-and-go one time, we just got two tires. We were not going to spend any more time on pit road than absolutely necessary. The only thing we knew for sure was we needed to be in the front. I took pit on four tires yesterday, had a great car, got it wrecked. I wasn't going to let that happen today. Thankfully the car was handling so well that I didn't have to worry about putting tires on it. I could just go on down the road. It was loose, which everybody was pushing. My car was push. Gave me a lot of options as far as what I wanted to do with my pit stop strategy. But, yes, it felt crazy because I don't think anybody really knew what to expect. Wound up to be typical, with the exception of the rain. But I heard that it hadn't had one shortened by rain since 1966, so I felt pretty good, like we might be due. When we were sitting down there and it was raining, you know, I thought maybe it was time to put another one shortened in the books.
Q. You've experienced so many ranges of emotions here, with the victories, the setbacks. Does this kind of close the chapter in a way for what happened two years ago? Do you feel like this victory was all your own?
MICHAEL WALTRIP: That chapter will never be closed. That's just part of my life. It's a part of who I am. That will never be considered a great race because of what happened. But, you know, I'm okay with that. I'm at peace with what occurred that day. When I won last July, it felt good to party here and celebrate and win. When I won today, it felt the same. But I will never close that chapter. I'm thankful for that. I think God has placed on me a real consciousness of how I got to this point. That's just another piece of the story, and I'm thankful that I have that consciousness. I never want to close a chapter on any part of my life - especially not when it comes to losing my friend like that.
Q. Regardless of whether he was your teammate or not, the 8 had the other fast car on the track. Was it good to see him sitting on the inside line thinking, "If I can get ahead of this 33, I'll be hard to beat"? Was that part of your strategy?
MICHAEL WALTRIP: Well, y'all go ahead and make another note that it is still raining, so... The decision was not premature. We could still be setting there, and in a minute they would proclaim me the winner again (smiling). No, I wasn't happy to see the 8 have problems. I was happy that he was in that position because I knew that it might be my chance to get the win, or get the lead. But, like, I almost was beating myself up a little bit. We caught the 48 going down the back straightaway. The 8 tried to push me around him. But I didn't have the run that I felt necessary to pull -- I could have probably cleared the 48 and been leading at the caution, but I just didn't feel comfortable with what we had together as a duo clearing the 48. This is on the restart prior to the one that I got the lead. Junior tried to push me by the 48 to get his lap back. I didn't go. Junior dove to the outside. The caution flew. I didn't feel good about making that move. I didn't think I could be successful at getting us both by the 48 and I didn't want to bring a whole bunch of other guys up into the mix, you know. So I laid behind the 48. Junior shot to the outside. The caution came back. I kind of rode around under caution because I thought it was going to start raining, the 48 was going to win, I thought, "Man, I should have tried that." A lot of times -- maybe I was just being a little too critical, a little hard on myself. Maybe it wouldn't have worked. When we went back to racing, I knew I had to jump early. I knew that there was going to be two things that would happen: i could get the lead and Junior could get a lap back. I would have liked to see him get them both back. Y'all know, I've been a team player. I'll always be a team player. There's too many people that work so hard in order for DEI to be successful for me to have -- for anybody to have a chip on their shoulder and not want to help each other.
Q. When you were pondering the end of this race because of the rain, did you think it might go into the night or did the drivers have an assurance?
MICHAEL WALTRIP: I mean, yeah, I knew that it could. But, man, we were going to race had that second shower not have come. It looked like it lightened up to the west and we were going to have some time to dry the track. But I was surprised when they said, "That's it, it's official." But, you know, they had more information than I had. They knew what the radars looked like. Mike Helton and all the folks from NASCAR were in touch with the weather people. I knew that we could be here for a long time. Like I said, I really wasn't going to worry about it. It was going to be what it was going to be. I was going to climb back in that car and try to lead some more.
Q. How hard were you praying for rain on that last lap?
MICHAEL WALTRIP: I was praying for rain when we were under caution and we came by, they had the wreck cleaned up, and then someone said it was sprinkling on the back. I said to myself, "That would be a really good thing." When we went back over there, it indeed was. But I have this deal, when I pray, I'm a goofball sometimes, and I just ask God to help me be smarter, a better person, forgive me of my sins, then I ask him what I want. I told him I'd like for it to rain for 40 days and 40 nights. That's just my heart's desire. I wanted it to rain. I think anybody else probably would have been the same way if they were leading; I just happened to be the one that was (smiling).
Q. Was this win a little disappointing because it was rain-shortened?
MICHAEL WALTRIP: Oh, yeah, it's just ruining me (laughter). You know what I heard? They're still going to pay me the whole amount (smiling). That's kind of crazy, isn't it? No, this is the Daytona 500. Wow, I mean, I about went -- I about couldn't talk earlier because I just tried -- I'm not smart enough to explain the significance of this event. I mean, this is Daytona, and this is the Daytona 500. I'm just honored to be the champion of it again. I mean, that's two. I'm just so thankful that we have a team and we did all the things to make it happen - no matter what the official distance is. We did lead the most laps, I think. We probably would have won it anyway, but I don't want to take that chance.
Q. Dale Jr. helped you on the final restart. Was there some discussion between your team and his, about him helping you out?
MICHAEL WALTRIP: Well, I don't know what y'all were watching, but, you know, he didn't really help me. He just took off, and I got behind him. We didn't talk about it. You know, that wasn't -- if that had been anybody else, I would have got behind them and done it. Just circumstantial that it worked out that way. I knew that he had a fast car, and I knew that I needed to get behind him because of it. But it didn't matter that he was my teammate. He darn sure didn't do anything to help me; he just did what he was supposed to do, and I took advantage of it. You know, I think that people that are saying Dale Jr. helped me are missing -- that's not correct, that's not the proper way to state what happened. It turned out that he helped me, but it was not premeditated. I just took advantage of a situation.
Q. Tomorrow you'll be giving up that car. It's a win the race, lose the car. Is that the good, the bad of winning the Daytona 500?
MICHAEL WALTRIP: We tested two cars, No. 14 and No. 21, when we came down here. No. 14 was the car I won Daytona with in July. No. 21 was a brand-new car. I never asked Slugger which car we were going to bring down here for the Daytona 500 because they were equally as fast. I would have been fine with either one of them. I didn't really care which one he brought. They can have No. 21, and we'll race No. 14 again. No. 14's got a pretty impressive record. She ran second at Talladega, she's ran fifth at the Daytona 500 last year, she won in July. She was leading a lot at Talladega in August or October, and she finished eighth. We'll have to bring her out, give her a chance to continue. I like her (smiling).
MODERATOR: Thanks. Congratulations.
MICHAEL WALTRIP: Thank y'all so much for giving this event what it deserves. I know it's a lot of work, a lot of time on the media's part. I never will forget as a kid what it meant to me to get to see all the beautiful color pictures, all the stories in the Owensboro paper from Daytona. Same way. That daytona News Journal hasn't changed in 25 years I've been coming here. Always has that special section with all the pretty pictures, great stories. I wanted to tell y'all thanks for your commitment to the sport, to this event.
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