One of the highlights of the 1999 Winston Cup season has been Michael Waltrip, who is on course to finish in the top 10 in points for the first time in his 14-year career.
Waltrip said it's no accident that his strong start comes in his first season driving for Jim Mattei.
"It's been a great change for me personally," Waltrip said. "I'm working with people I enjoy being with. I love my car owner. He's the nicest man in the whole world. He's new to the sport but so level that it's good to have him as a boss. Everybody's really on the same page, and they believe I'll give them 110 percent for 500 laps."
That was apparent in the season-opening Daytona 500, when Waltrip finished fifth. Two months later, though, Waltrip still cringes when people talk about that day representing a successful start.
"I struggle with that one because I thought I was going to win. I went there to win," he said. "To all of the people looking at us, they didn't expect us to win. It's like, `Man, Michael ran fifth. That's a great run for him.' They didn't expect that out of me. I went down there expecting to win the race, and I still feel that way today. I feel like I should have done better."
Waltrip, winless in a 401-race Winston Cup career that began in 1985, thinks he can end the drought in 1999.
"At the end of the year, I hope to have won a race. I really feel like that's legitimate," he said. "I hope to have led some laps, and I mean not just two or three here and there. I'd like 50 in a row once, you know?"
Waltrip has followed his Daytona run with no finish worse than 22nd. That came at Las Vegas in the third race of the season, but he has recorded finishes between 10th and 21st in the four races since.
Waltrip, who has never wound up higher than 12th in the annual driver standings, has been either ninth or 10th since March 14.
"We've gotten off to a decent start, but it could have so easily been so much more. So we're not content with what we've done. The only thing we are is focused on doing more," he said. "I still have a lot to prove, and you won't convince me that I won't get it done before it's all over."
NO SITTING: Darrell Waltrip has an idea for how Speedway Motorsports Inc. could have saved some money in its massive overhaul of Bristol Motor Speedway.
The company recently completed a project that transformed the track into a giant bowl that can hold 140,000 people. Waltrip, however, wonders if SMI should have even bothered installing seats around the .533-mile, high-banked oval.
"The fans never sit down. There's no reason to," said Waltrip, whose 12 victories put him first on Bristol's all-time list. "They stand up from the time we start until the time it's over with. You can hear the people screaming at times. Something could happen to Jeff Gordon or Dale Earnhardt or somebody, and you can hear the people. That's how close they are to you."
Waltrip said the raucous atmosphere at Bristol, both on and around the track, "exemplifies the best of everything that makes Winston Cup racing as exciting and as popular as it is."
Waltrip's not alone in his assessment. In a recent survey conducted by the weekly newspaper Winston Cup Scene, respondents named Bristol their favorite place to watch a race.
"Bristol is an event, like the Final Four or the Super Bowl," fellow driver Jimmy Spencer said. "I'd tell every race fan to come to Bristol, because there's nothing else like it."
MORE PLANS: The sellout crowd at Bristol for last week's Winston Cup race included Martinsville Speedway president W. Clay Campbell and several other interested officials of the southern Virginia track.
Martinsville, a .526-mile, lowbanked oval that is the only track on the circuit shorter than Bristol, currently has seating for about 81,000 people, but Campbell envisions a Bristol-like expansion.
To do that, however, Martinsville will need the cooperation of Norfolk Southern, whose railroad tracks run parallel to the backstretch, severely limiting the number of seats the speedway can erect in that area.
Campbell held his first meeting with Norfolk Southern officials earlier this month to discuss moving a section of the tracks.
"It looks very positive," Campbell said. "They don't see any major hurdles in getting it accomplished. I think just about everybody on all levels of the company supports it, from the chairman on down, so we're very encouraged by it."
Campbell said it appears that about one-fourth of a mile of track would have to be moved roughly 200-300 feet away from the race track for the speedway to be able to expand its backstretch seating.
If the project is approved, Martinsville could began an expansion project in 2-3 years that would push its capacity to about 130,000 seats, Campbell said. A decade ago, Martinsville had seating for about 40,000.
"This sport's changing daily," Campbell said. "I think we've been doing a pretty good job keeping up with it, but the key is to stay on top of things."
BY THE NUMBERS: Rusty Wallace's victory at Bristol made him the seventh different winner in the last seven Winston Cup short-track races ... Wallace has 31 top-10 finishes in 31 Bristol races. That total includes seven victories. ... Jeff Burton, the series points leader, and Dale Jarrett, who is second in the standings, are the only drivers with five top-five finishes in this year's seven races. ... After opening the season with four top-10 finishes, Mike Skinner has recorded finishes of 32nd, 42nd and 30th, dropping him from first to 12th in the points.