When the checkered flag flies on Sunday, that’s the conclusion of the journey for arguably NASCAR’s ultimate journeyman.
In sports, the journeyman is defined as “an athlete who is technically competent but unable to excel” and Michael Waltrip is arguably the textbook case in NASCAR. Statistically, his numbers aren’t impressive, especially when compared to those of his brother and NASCAR Hall of Fame member, Darrell Waltrip.
But out of all the drivers who’ve started a NASCAR race, Michael is one of 186 individuals who’ve actually won a race in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. He has two Daytona 500 victories on his résumé, one more than his brother and two more than drivers such as Tony Stewart and NASCAR Hall of Fame members Mark Martin and Rusty Wallace.
Waltrip started 462 times in the Cup Series without recording a victory, minus a victory in the exhibition All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway in 1996. But on February 18, 2001, in his first race for new team owner Dale Earnhardt and Dale Earnhardt Inc., he broke through for his first career victory in the sport’s biggest race.
Alas, what started as the greatest moment in his life quickly turned into the darkest day in NASCAR history. On the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, Earnhardt perished when his car slammed the Turn 4 wall head-on.
Waltrip says the circumstances of his first win is something he lives with, but wouldn’t call it “haunting.”
“I accepted it and I think I said it very well the days after that race. I think we have a number of days when we’re born that we’re going to live. Everybody has that number and that was Dale’s day, and me winning was the perfect person to win because I just wanted to give him the credit,” Waltrip said. “I still honor him by giving him the credit and I will say also 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. Obviously, I wish I could have got a hug from him and everything had have turned out different, but that’s just not the way it was meant to be.”
His next victory came at Daytona International Speedway on Independence Day weekend in 2002. Thanks to a late spin by Ryan Newman, Waltrip coasted to victory under caution and his demeanor in victory lane was “business as usual,” as opposed to the “fun, friendly, nice to old people and kids – even nice to the media” guy, as he described himself.
His third came a few months later in the rain-shortened 2003 Daytona 500. Asked if the race being shortened by rain mattered to him, he responded he “got the trophy and the check and they didn’t shorten either one of those.” He added that he’d rather have won in a manner similar to Denny Hamlin last year, but “that’s just not the way it is.”
Waltrip’s final victory came in the 2003 EA Sports 500 at Talladega Superspeedway. Restarting in the lead with five laps to go, he held off a final charge by Jeff Gordon to score his fourth and final Cup win.
The next two years, success was nowhere to find and he left DEI at the conclusion of the 2005 season.
After an unremarkable stint at Bill Davis Racing, which included four DNQ’s, he started his own race team that led to Toyota’s foray into the Cup Series.
“I think Darrell and I took it as partly our responsibility to tell the world that this was a good thing for NASCAR, that Toyota, they have a plant in Georgetown, Kentucky, and they employ a lot of hard working Kentuckians and Americans all over our country to build their cars, and they just wanted to come race in NASCAR, and the money they spent marketing and on the cars and the teams and all those things feel like we’re something that would help the sport, and I’m thankful that they asked us to be a part of it,” he said.
Unfortunately, the legacy of the organization that bore his name was of cheating with illegal fuel additives and manipulating the outcome of the 2013 Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond International Raceway.
Since 2012, Waltrip transitioned to the role of studio analyst and color commentator for FOX Sports, while still maintaining an ownership stake of MWR (prior to its shutting down at the conclusion of the 2015 season), although not running the day-to-day operations. It was here that his offbeat, goofy personality shined through, especially during his polarizing “Grid Walk” segments in FOX’s pre-race shows.
This hasn’t stopped him from jumping back in the car to race now and again.
This Sunday, however, will be the last for the 32-year journeyman. He thought 30 Daytona 500’s “was a cool number and the last one was coming some day and Aaron’s wanted to help me celebrate it and Toyota, so that’s why.”
When asked what advice he’d give to up and coming drivers, he said just to have fun and remember this is an entertainment business.
“We’re here for people to sit down and watch and smile and enjoy it,” he said. “And you don’t have to be cool. You can be cool, but you need to be fun, and you need to be outgoing and energetic, and you need to be able to tell your story with some flair.”