Waltrip No One-Race Wonder

You can now remove Michael Waltrip’s name from the list of one-race wonders in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series.

With his victory Saturday night in the Pepsi 400 at Daytona International Speedway, Waltrip moved into a tie for 81st place on the all-time wins list (he’s tied with 22 other drivers), but more importantly, he won’t be known as one of those drivers who tasted victory once during their career.

And there are a lot of those – 59 to be exact. That list includes the likes of current drivers such as Brett Bodine, Jerry Nadeau, Elliott Sadler, Ricky Craven and Robby Gordon, as well as Wendell Scott, Lennie Pond, Jody Ridley, Lake Speed, Bobby Hillin Jr., Phil Parsons, Dick Brooks, Ron Bouchard, and, who could forget, the immortal Sam McQuagg.

Mario Andretti and Johnny Rutherford are also on that list, but those two were more legends in the open-wheel ranks. Nadeau, Sadler, Craven and Gordon all got their one Winston Cup victory within the last two years, and all are more than likely to win again sometime in the future.

But Waltrip doesn’t have to worry about that. Saturday night’s emotional victory at Daytona – where he had earned his first Winston Cup triumph nearly 17 months earlier – took care of that.

“Personally, it just felt great to win,” Waltrip said. “It’s a dream for me, just to get to run this car at these tracks because I don’t feel like there’s anyone that can race at restrictor plate tracks any better than me and I don’t think anybody’s got a faster car than me (at those tracks) right now. So when you put it all together, if you believe that, then you should win.”

It took Waltrip 15-plus years and 463 agonizing races to get his first Winston Cup victory in the 2001 Daytona 500. It took another 52 races to get victory No. 2, but that’s nothing compared to how long it was before he tasted victory the first time.

On top of that, he didn’t even get to enjoy it the first time. His car owner and friend, Dale Earnhardt, was killed in an accident on the final lap of last year’s Daytona 500.

“I’m not selfish, and I don’t need to be told I’m great to be able to party and all that,” Waltrip said. “I am so driven from the inside, wanting to be the best and wanting to perform at the best of my ability and so I was sad that Dale Earnhardt got killed. I wasn’t sad because I’m couldn’t celebrate.

“I’m thankful to win again, and I’m happy about that. I’m not jumping up and down about it, but I guess I’m kind of thinking of what happened the last time I was in this position.”

Waltrip admitted that Earnhardt’s death shook him up more than what he had let on, but that he’s back to where he should be – totally focused on his job and his race team.

“I’ve been solidly, solidly in a good place mentally since last fall,” Waltrip said. “I admit I didn’t know where I was for a while or what I wanted to do and that’s unfortunate because so many people count on me. I couldn’t help it. Then I got refocused and went to DEI and told the guys what we had to do and what I wanted to see done, and they did it for me.

“We struggled some at the first of this year and that was really freaking me out because I knew I had my hand in the pie and I really never felt that way before, so I couldn’t really understand exactly why what was going on was going on. I never at one time thought I couldn’t do this job and I don’t believe that I can’t go to Chicago (this weekend) and win that race. I’m happy with the way I look at this job.”

Waltrip has climbed into 12th place in the Winston Cup points standings, a far cry from where he wound up a year ago – 24th. After a slow start in 2002, he’s come on strong as of late, with six top-10 finishes in his last nine races.

That has quieted a lot of earlier talk along the Winston Cup rumor mill that had Waltrip, whose contract is up at the end of the season, ousted from his No. 15 Chevy at the end of the season at DEI.

“We’re going to talk about all of that in a week or so,” Waltrip said. “By the time all this talk started, it was my opinion that it’s their team, and if they didn’t want me to drive the car, then they didn’t owe me anything. I have a contract until the end of the year. If they wanted to put somebody in it for next year, then that was their business.

“If I wasn’t successful enough to want them to keep me there, then I didn’t want to be there. I believe I can win. I will have a job, I’ll have a ride. I just wanted to keep this one because I love driving the NAPA Auto Parts Chevy. It’s the best ride I could ever get, so I don’t want to lose it.”

With the way Waltrip is running these days, that doesn’t seem likely now. And perhaps soon victory No. 3, which would put him in the same company with the likes of Parnelli Jones, Tiny Lund and Jeremy Mayfield, will come along soon.

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