Michael Waltrip says Dale Earnhardt was the inspiration to start his teamBy Ashley McCubbin
When Michael Waltrip takes to the track this coming Daytona Speedweeks, it’ll be a memorable weekend. The two-time Daytona 500 champion has put together a deal with Swan Racing to try and qualify for this year’s Daytona 500.
“Racing the 500 is a big deal to me,” Waltrip said. “It’s something that means a lot. That race defines my career. That’s the race that we all grow up inspiring to go win as a kid so I just love it. So greatful to be in it.”
The deal reunites him with Tony Eury Jr. and Steve Hmiel, whom he worked both with at Dale Earnhardt Incorporated. Also, members of the team that Eury Jr. and Hmiel have brought in were part of the team at DEI.
“I went over there the other day and it’s like going back eight years seeing all the people working there,” Waltrip said this past weekend. “The last time I went to the Daytona 500 with Tony Eury Jr. as my crew chief, we won the 150 qualifier and were leading the Daytona 500 when our engine broke. Tony Jr. was a lot of fun to work with then and the car I will be driving in the 500, Tony Jr. will be my crew chief. So looking forward to that.”
The deal for Waltrip at Dale Earnhardt Incorporated came together virtue of his friendship with Dale Earnhardt. Earnhardt put Waltrip behind the wheel of the No. 15, with the promise to deliver Waltrip his first ever Sprint Cup Series career victory.
Those pieces came together with their first race together – the 2001 Daytona 500 – as Waltrip took the checkered flag ahead of Dale Earnhardt Jr. However, the other side of that fateful day was the crash in turn three that saw Earnhardt die. Waltrip released a book called In The Blink of an Eye, which he talks about that day and his mixed emotions.
“I believed in writing the book was to try to figure it out,” Waltrip explained. “It was hard to talk about the details of that day because it was too painful, but the day – talking in relation to my team and how I started it – if you ever see me heading towards the final turn with two of my cars going to win the Daytona 500 and I get plucked from the earth, just know that I went out as happy as I’ll ever be. The Daytona 500 is one of the greatest races ever to win as a car owner and a racecar driver. That day, we were hurting cause Dale left us, but I bet no one ever had a bigger smile on their face when they left us.”
Having watched Earnhardt grow his team from a small simple garage to what was known as the Garage Mahal, it was Earnhardt that inspired Waltrip to put his team together.
“Dale was a tremendous amount of inspiration for me to start that team,” Waltrip said. “I wanted to have a team ever since forever. It started out as a little shop behind my house, and that’s how Dale Earnhardt Incorporated started. He just had a late model team, and he raced some Nationwide races with his car and grew it into DEI. Dale was my buddy and I really admired him and looked up him and always wanted to have a team like Dale’s. We’re not anywhere near where DEI was when Dale left it, but we’re gaining on it and I bet that makes him proud.”
As part of the deal with Swan Racing for this year’s Daytona 500, Waltrip will be unveiling a special paint scheme.
“We have a really neat announcement next Thursday with what the car will look like, what will be on the car,” Waltrip announced. “The media tour in Daytona is next Thursday and this time, in the middle of two sessions, we’re going to unveil our car and let the world know what our plan is. it’s really special.”