Waltrip fallout tough, but Duel chance still there

2/16/2007 - NASCAR

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Day 2 of Torture Week at Daytona and still no death penalty.

Toyota officials might dispute that. They're feeling pretty low right now.

The latest round of punishment left Michael Waltrip with some major issues to resolve. NASCAR's actions against Waltrip's No. 55 Camry on Wednesday reached historic proportions.

Waltrip's shiny new Toyota team is $100,000 lighter and 100 points in the red.

His primary car was confiscated. His crew chief (David Hyder) and team vice president (Bobby Kennedy) were ejected from the premises.

A mystery substance (which NASCAR wouldn't reveal) found in the intake manifold caused the trip to the woodshed for Waltrip.

Not the Nextel Cup debut Toyota officials envisioned for their poster boy, the manufacturer's best-known team owner and most visible spokesman.

Jim Aust, vice president of Toyota Racing Development, was asked if this was his worst nightmare.

"I would say that's pretty close to accurate," Aust said. "This is a week we had looked forward to for many years. To begin this way certainly takes some of the limelight and happiness out of it."

It also doesn't help the Toyota guys win over some NASCAR followers who didn't want them here in the first place. That marketing campaign just got a lot tougher.

NASCAR is making things tougher on all the rule-busters. The two-day total on the punishment scale is $250,000, 250 points, five crew chiefs suspended and one team director booted out.

Kyle Petty, another driver/owner in Cup, said NASCAR isn't playing games any longer.

"Don't get me wrong," Petty said on a Speed TV interview. "I'm not throwing rocks at glass houses here. I've cheated a lot of times, just not gotten caught like these guys have.

"But NASCAR is saying they're not going to put up with it anymore. They are saying 2007 will be a new era in NASCAR."

Maybe, but Waltrip still can get in a backup car Thursday, run his 60-lap qualifying event and attempt to race his way into the Daytona 500.

Good luck with that. The team didn't get a single lap of practice Wednesday.

The No. 55 crew couldn't get his backup car ready in time for the two practice sessions. It didn't help that NASCAR officials were hovering over them and watching every move they made.

Six of the eight Toyota drivers will have to race their way into the field in the Gatorade Duel 150s on Thursday.

There's more pressure on Waltrip than any other Toyota driver. We're talking about a two-time winner of the Daytona 500, a man who has been competing in the event for 20 consecutive years.

He has some tough competition to beat if he's going to make his 21st Daytona 500, including past Daytona 500 winners Ward Burton and Bill Elliott.

Ten drivers in the 31-car field of Waltrip's race are trying to earn two available spots into the 500. Waltrip starts behind all of them.

"I don't care about the others," Waltrip said Sunday. "All I care about is me. I'm going to race as hard as I can. That's all I can do."

No Camry driver earned a spot during qualifying Sunday when the front row was set. Dale Jarrett is in as a past champion and Dave Blaney has an automatic spot as a driver for a top-35 team from 2006.

This much we know already: All eight Toyotas will not make the race. It doesn't add up with only four spots available for 22 cars not yet in the field for the 500.

Three Camry drivers -- Jeremy Mayfield in the first race, David Reutimann and Mike Skinner in the second -- are starting ahead of the other nonqualifiers in their races. They have a good chance to earn transfer spots.

Other than Waltrip, the only Toyota driver starting near the back of the field Thursday is rookie A.J. Allmendinger, who's on the outside of Row 10 in the first race.

When the Duels end, 18 drivers are packing up and shipping out. Some of them have about as much chance of racing their way in as they do of winning the Florida lottery.

And those are optimistic odds for 72-year-old James Hylton. He hopes to become the oldest starter of a Nextel Cup event, but he posted the second-slowest lap during qualifying.

The AARP hero is a feel-good story that gained a lot of national attention for giving it a try. That's where it ends.

Unless more than half the grid crashes in front of him, racing his way in from the back of the field isn't a realistic option.

So what. After Thursday, Hylton can say he's the only septuagenarian ever to drive 190 mph at Daytona in a race with Jimmie Johnson and Tony Stewart.

That's not good enough for Waltrip and the other Toyota drivers. The week they envisioned as a celebration of a new era has become an embarrassment and a time of despair.

Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. He can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.