DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- A year after Michael Waltrip left the Daytona International Speedway in disgrace after being caught with an illegal fuel additive, he found vindication by winning the outside pole for Sunday's Daytona 500.
Waltrip talked about the struggles of last year and the turnarounds at Michael Waltrip Racing for the upcoming season shortly after qualifying last Sunday. Here are excerpts of that interview:
Question: Are you surprised by your qualifying effort?
Waltrip: I did not expect to sit on the front row. I knew we would have a chance, but what I hoped, and this was all I was bold enough to hope, was that we could be the fastest car with a star beside it (required to qualify on time). That's the case and we've got another car that's one of the fastest, so it's a very, very successful day for our team. There's much relief for everybody. There were questions over the summer whether we would even make it to the end of last year and we not only start 2008 with a solid team -- we're a lot better team than we've ever been before. We expect to perform week-in and week-out and testing has shown us that we're fast. It's nice for the whole world to get to see it now.
Question: Does this relieve some of the pressure?
Waltrip: It's a three-pronged organization. We've got NAPA, UPS and Aaron's, two of them are going to be happy and one of them will say, 'Hey, what about us? We need to get in this race'. Dale Jarrett has to get in on Thursday. Kurt Busch is a guy I'll be pulling for, but mainly I'll be pulling for Dale Jarrett to be able to race his UPS car up through the middle of it and have a good race on Thursday. I think he learned a lot (during the Budweiser Shootout all-star race). He learned that even though his car wasn't right, it was fast enough to keep up and be in the middle of things. Dale Jarrett's a racer and he'll take that type of car, adjust it and I feel real confident about what he'll accomplish on Thursday.
Question: What was your goal for qualifying?
Waltrip: All I wanted to be was the fastest car with a star beside it and I am that. I would venture to guess that Jimmie Johnson knew he was in the race when he got up this morning and I didn't. I'm going to have to think that I'm the happiest guy in Daytona.
Waltrip: That Wednesday night (last year) before I came in here was the first time that I accepted we had done something illegal. Up until then, I kept thinking every test, every moment that went by, they were going to find out it was a mistake, something happened that was explainable. We made (Toyota) part of the controversy by what happened. I explained to them that someone had tampered with our engine and our fuel. That was a very difficult thing to do. Here I am a year later, and it's just the opposite. I still want to cry. I'm that happy we were able to get through that, get to the point in the middle of '07 when it was probably questionable if you were my banker if we were going to survive. We've survived. We've been able to get our foundation steadied up. During the time we were getting all of our business squared away, our cars were getting better. We were doing better things on the track. That was encouraging.
Question: You've won the Daytona 500 twice. Is Daytona your favorite track?
Waltrip: It is and I've always said it is and it's not just because of the success I've had here necessarily, but because of the history that it has in my family. I've been following my brother since I've been on the face of this Earth and Daytona has been a huge part of who we are and what we do. I've experienced some of the best times of my life here and some of the worst. Anything that has that big of an emotional swing, when you're as passionate about racing as I am, that endears it to you. It's a really good day for our team and I'm just thankful for the fact that we're here. There was a question a few months back as to what would happen to us, but we survived and now to be where we are is just a great feeling.
Question: Do you feel good about all three of your teams?
Waltrip: Everywhere we test, we're faster -- we run good times and our cars are faster. I'm very confident about what we've got and how we're going to perform. We're ready to go and we have good speed. I think that's evident today.