DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Michael Waltrip sat in a golf cart just outside the care center, stared at the ground and sheepishly placed both hands on his head.
He knew he made a costly mistake in the first qualifying race Thursday, one that likely would end his streak of 25 consecutive starts in the Daytona 500.
The two-time Daytona 500 winner wrecked his No. 40 Toyota with seven laps remaining in the 150-mile race. It was an odd one, too. Waltrip was getting up to speed after leaving the pits and trying to merge onto the high-banked oval when he lost control of his car and slammed into the wall. He finished 18th in the 25-car field.
“I just went the wrong way and lost the car,” said Waltrip. “I feel like I let everybody down. I raced my way to the front and then I let them down. It’s just really hard. I don’t know what to say. It’s just sad.”
Waltrip’s frustration was evident during the final few laps.
He watched the scoring tower and knew he needed a bunch of help to make the season-opening event. It didn’t happen. Michael McDowell and Robby Gordon raced their way into the opener and eliminated Waltrip.
Waltrip also crashed in Saturday night’s exhibition Budweiser Shootout, making this a difficult Speedweeks for him. Throw in his crash in the 24-hour race at Daytona in January and it’s been a forgettable start to 2012 for one of NASCAR’s biggest personalities.
He has started every Daytona 500 since 1987, the longest current streak in NASCAR. Mark Martin has started 24 in a row and will tie Waltrip’s streak Sunday.
Waltrip won The Great American Race in 2001 and 2003, both while driving for Dale Earnhardt Inc. He started his own team in 2007, but has just one top-10 finish in five races as an owner/driver.
He could buy his way into the opener, and Gordon said after earning a starting position that he would consider selling his spot. It was unclear whether Waltrip would want to shell out the money, especially after already totaling two race cars.
“Michael is very passionate about restrictor-plate racing,” race winner and fellow owner/driver Tony Stewart said. “There’s a lot of us that like it when we get back to normal racing. This is Michael’s specialty. This is what he eats, lives and breathes <0x2014> Daytona and Talladega. It would be a shame if he doesn’t make it.
“He’s put a great effort with great teams out here and he’s got some good full time teams. He takes that pressure on himself of having to race his way in. It shows what kind of car owner he really is. It would be a shame if he misses it.”