Thats Why Theyre Rumors

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Once upon a time, Michael Waltrip was rumored to be out of a job at Dale Earnhardt, Inc.

Waltrip’s sponsor, NAPA Auto Parts, was supposedly headed elsewhere, too, perhaps out of the business. Ward Burton back at Bill Davis Racing? Most believed the odds were slim, but Burton, and his sponsor Caterpillar, have re-upped with BDR.

And what about Kevin Harvick? It was rumored that he was feuding with team owner Richard Childress, and that he was taking his talents elsewhere in 2003.

Moral of the story: Don’t believe EVERYTHING you read or hear.

While “silly season” is far from over and there are still a lot of players undecided as to their destinations, some of the “heavy hitters” in the Winston Cup Series aren’t going anywhere, despite earlier reports to the contrary.

The status of Waltrip’s immediate future was put to rest this past weekend during a press conference at Chicagoland Speedway. DEI Vice-President Ty Norris informed the media, which has speculated about Waltrip’s job all season long, that Waltrip and NAPA were staying put at DEI through the 2004 NASCAR Winston Cup Series season.

As early as late April, some reports had Elliott Sadler talking to DEI about replacing Waltrip in the No. 15 Chevy. Sadler was then reported as the leading candidate for the No. 1 Chevy, currently occupied by Steve Park.

Sadler, who announced earlier this year that he would not return to the seat of the No. 21 Wood Brothers Ford, is now rumored to be headed to Robert Yates Racing to drive either the No. 28 Ford, currently occupied by Ricky Rudd, or a third car at RYR with a high-profile sponsor.

No matter what Sadler does, however, Waltrip’s job is secure at DEI.

NAPA’s return for the next two years certainly ensured that, and a lot of research went into NAPA’s decision to come back to DEI.

“I can tell you when we went out to start taking a straw poll, I was amazed at the unanimous support for our involvement in Winston Cup racing and particularly with DEI and Michael Waltrip,” said Steve Handschuh, president of NAPA Auto Parts. “Just completely unwavering support is what we got – that we need to do this – and even from people who aren’t big NASCAR fans, because we know our customers follow the sport.

“Michael Waltrip has not only been a great performer on the track, but he has just been absolutely fabulous for NAPA. It’s with a great deal of pride and a great deal of enthusiasm that we’ve renewed our sponsorship agreement. The blue and gold will be on the No. 15 car, and Michael will be the driver.”

Waltrip earned his first Winston Cup victory after 16 years of trying in his first race with DEI and NAPA last season – the Daytona 500. The rest of the 2001 season, however, was a bit of a nightmare for Waltrip as he slumped to 24th in the Winston Cup standings.

This year didn’t start out any better for Waltrip, and that’s when – not unexpectedly – the rumors about his demise began flying.

Lately, however, things have begun to pick up for the No. 15 NAPA Chevy team, and Waltrip received a bit of vindication when he took the checkered flag on July 7 in the Pepsi 400 at Daytona International Speedway.

Waltrip is currently 14th in the Winston Cup points standings.

“The team is where we had hoped to be about a year ago with our performance and the way we’re running on the track,” Waltrip said. “In the last six races or so, we could be leading the points or definitely be in the Top 3. Six races is not a season, but it’s certainly enough events to say that there’s a trend there. It all comes down to performance as far as the driver is concerned.

“When there was a lot of talk about what I was doing or whether I would be back next year or not, that didn’t affect me or (crew chief) Slugger (Labbe) at all. We understand that the racetrack is where we want to perform. If we go out on the racetrack and do our job, all of the rest of the issues will take care of themselves. If we can’t get it done together at DEI, then we’re wasting our time staying there. It didn’t affect me or this team at all. This is a team sport, and we’ve got a great team right now.”

Norris said he admires Waltrip for the poise he showed throughout the entire situation.

“This is a testament to what Michael and Slugger have done,” Norris said. “They put this thing on their shoulders and said no matter what, they knew that performance was a key issue and it was a key issue for NAPA and Dale Earnhardt, Inc. Michael has shown the most class of anybody I’ve ever been around in this time, because it was very difficult for all of us. It’s a thrill to know that he’s going to be around the organization because of what he brings to us, not only from a friendship standpoint, but from a leadership standpoint.

“We had a lot of pressure on us not knowing what NAPA’s long-term goal was going to be in Winston Cup. And to be able to convince NAPA that this is where they need to be and to be able to, if NAPA didn’t stay, sell our team to someone and to another sponsor, which we didn’t want to do, we had to show promise. There was a lot being said and I made a lot of mistakes at Richmond (in May) in the things I said. That put some undue pressure on a lot of people. You learn from your mistakes. But, what was being said probably should have been more private.”

Privacy in Winston Cup racing? It’s a very rare commodity, indeed.

Reports of Harvick’s demise at RCR were obviously performance generated as well. Harvick is a disappointing 28th in the Winston Cup points standings, but Harvick hopes his victory Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway will get things going in a positive direction.

Last week, Harvick denied he and Childress have ever been “angry at each other,” at least to the point where Harvick’s departure was discussed. Harvick said it never entered his or Childress’ mind, even through a time when teams and crew chiefs were changed with the No. 31 Chevy team.

“There are a lot of things that people can say about you and we didn’t say a whole lot,” Harvick said after Sunday’s victory, his first in nearly a year. “We just kept our head down, kept digging on our race teams, and on our race cars. This isn’t just the GM Goodwrench team. We made a big change there with the teams and everybody thought it was going to be better. It’s going to be better for everybody in the long run and right now it’s starting to show.

“There’s a lot of people that thought they had us beat down and kicked up and buried in our grave and looking for someone to fill the hole at RCR. But we’ve just been putting our heads down and letting our racecar do the talking. That’s been our main focus, to go out and work on our racecars and not to get into the middle of any turmoil. If we can make it through last year at RCR (after the death of Dale Earnhardt), then we can make it through anything. We’ve got a lot of confidence in each other and we’re very, very excited to be together as a race team and as an organization.”

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