2007 Daytona 500 just a bad memory for Michael Waltrip Racing

1/25/2008 - NASCAR

CORNELIUS, N.C. -- Bobby Kennedy walked out of Daytona International Speedway two weeks ago by himself. No escort. No lurking reporters. No

He left with his head high and his dignity in check.

It wasn't that way a year ago as NASCAR vice president of competition Robin Pemberton walked Kennedy, a laptop under his arm, to the back gate
of the Sprint Cup garage and banned him from returning for the remainder of Speedweeks.

Only a few minutes prior to that Kennedy was talking to NASCAR president Mike Helton and series director John Darby about why a foreign substance was found in Michael Waltrip's car prior to qualifying for the Daytona 500.

"Next thing you know they say you've got to leave," Kennedy recalled. "It was like an out-of-body experience. It was humiliating for sure."

Kennedy understands why he had to leave. As the vice president for competition at Michael Waltrip Racing he was responsible for everything that happened with the car.

"They just said this is the way it's going to be: We can send the whole team home or send the crew chief [David Hyder] and you home," Kennedy said. "We said that's what we're going to do.

"It gave me a black eye that's hard to heal. People still bring it up. You still get the questions. It's like a scar that won't go away. It's like being put in jail knowing you're an innocent man. You suck it up and give it up for the company."

Kennedy and Hyder both were given indefinite suspensions. Kennedy returned to work for MWR in June, heading up research and development and testing as he continues to do now heading into a week of key tests at Las Vegas and California.

Hyder and Dean Johnson, both now at BAM Racing, were released after an intense investigation by the company and NASCAR.

"We feel pretty confident we know who did it," Kennedy said. "All the people involved in that last February, those people are no longer with us."

Kennedy still gets angry when he reflects on what happened. He remembers the months and months of hard work that went into preparation for the first race of MWR's inaugural season. He remembers the countless times that he and others preached the importance of doing things the right way.

"At the end of the day, somebody took it upon themselves to do it and Michael Waltrip Racing paid the price," Kennedy said. "It was a very bad situation, something that could have cost Michael everything. He had put every dollar he made in his life into the business -- his home, everything.

"He poured it all into building this place here. Sometimes people don't listen and follow the rules."

Kennedy doesn't blame NASCAR for not publicly clearing him of any wrongdoing or revealing what the substance was. He said it would be virtually impossible for him or the governing body to prove fault in a courtroom.

"That's not their responsibility," he said. "But we feel pretty confident we got rid of the people involved. … You just can't come out and say this guy did it when we can't prove it. We don't have DNA tests. We don't have fingerprints. No video.

"But there's always circumstances, things a little out of kilter, and you start putting the pieces of the puzzle together and it starts to add up."

Waltrip feels for Kennedy. He says most people don't understand what his good friend went through after being called out and publicly humiliated.

"It affects him today," the two-time Daytona 500 champion said as he showed off his new facility. "His credibility is still a little bit damaged, and that's unfortunate. If you knew him like I know him, that's not him. I will tell you what he's done. He's taken the attitude of what most winners do. Let me show you what I'm all about, let me show you what I can do."

It's like being put in jail knowing you're an innocent man. You suck it up and give it up for the company.

-- Bobby Kennedy

In some ways the ordeal was tougher on Kennedy than Waltrip.

"I was publicly convicted of doing something wrong when I had no idea what was going on," Waltrip said. "I knew I didn't know what went on, so I didn't a hundred percent care what people thought.

"Bobby, it was tough on him personally to be implicated in such a ridiculous circumstance. I supported him because I've always supported him. He loves me and we're friends and we've been that way since 2000. I never for one second thought he did something wrong."

The toughest times for Kennedy were spent sitting at home with nothing to do while his name was being crucified in the media and by some of his peers.

He got through it by returning to work and overseeing the move into the new 137,000-square-foot facility that used to be a movie theater and skate park. He eventually was put in charge of the testing program.

"At first I was real angry on how it all went down," Kennedy said. "As I sat back I realized this was how the cards were dealt and the best thing I could do was move forward."

Waltrip said Kennedy's experience has been key to putting the team in position to be competitive after a year in which he, Dale Jarrett and David Reutimann struggled to make races. He's glad Kennedy chose to work through the situation instead of give up.

"I'm real grateful for his attitude," he said. "It would have been easy to say, 'Man, these people, it's getting on my nerves.' He didn't do that. He said, 'I'll show you. I'll just work harder.'"

That those believed to be guilty landed other jobs didn't surprise Waltrip or Kennedy.

"The talent pool is not as deep as everyone thinks," Kennedy said. "When you've got good people with knowledge that can help teams people can look past what they've done before.

"If somebody can hire somebody that helps a race team they're going to do it."

Kennedy can't wait to get back to Daytona in two weeks to begin preparing for the 50th running of the 500. He's optimistic the team can make a run at the pole and even a win based on recent tests.

He's ready to rebuild his reputation and put what happened a year ago completely in his rearview mirror.

"At the end of the day, when you look over the deal last year, you're responsible," he said. "It's the same thing as if you're a parent and your kid gets in trouble at school. You're responsible.

"Someone took punishment for doing something that shouldn't have been done. We all suffered from it. We have to put it behind us and move on. It's not NASCAR's fault. It's just something we have to live with. It's not a perfect world."

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.