Daytona bittersweet for Michael Waltrip
For Michael Waltrip Racing, the 2011 season breaks down in two parts:
1. The Daytona 500.
2. Everything else.
Waltrip knows it better than anyone, but the people who work for him know it, also.
MWR, one of Toyota's original flagship Sprint Cup operations, has big goals entering its fifth season. David Reutimann and Martin Truex Jr. believe they can contend for a playoff spot and give MWR its first Chase driver.
It's a realistic possibility, but no one will talk much about that until Daytona is behind them.
The focus will be on Waltrip and the 10-year anniversary of a day no NASCAR fan ever will forget. As Waltrip has said many times, "The best day of my life also was the worst day of my life."
Waltrip ended years of frustration by doing the unimaginable, earning his first Cup victory in the Daytona 500. But that glorious moment became devastating sadness when Waltrip learned his boss and his dear friend -- NASCAR icon Dale Earnhardt -- was killed in a crash on the final lap.
"In some ways for me it's so weird to talk about 10 years as being a long time ago," Waltrip said. "I think about it almost every day. But in NASCAR, it's daylight and dark what has occurred over that time. It was another era."
So much has changed. Safety advancements have revolutionized the sport and greatly minimized the danger of a serious injury or fatality.
Waltrip's full-time driving days have ended, but he hopes to be on the track Feb. 20 in the 500, a decade after that stunning moment. Waltrip will have a black paint scheme and the No. 15 on his Toyota, the number he used when he won the race with Earnhardt's help.
"This is a chance for me to celebrate Dale's life and the fact that he believed in me like he did," Waltrip said. "I wanted a black car that would honor Dale's life [and his black No. 3] and career."
Waltrip spoke to reporters during the annual NASCAR media tour last month in Charlotte, N.C., but he wisely didn't bring the MWR drivers to the session, knowing most of the questions would be about the 10-year anniversary of Earnhardt's death. In 2001, Reutimann and Truex still were years away from their Cup debuts.
Many of Waltrip's memories from 10 years ago are chronicled in his new book, "In the Blink of an Eye: Dale, Daytona and the Day that Changed Everything."
"It was a personal thing for me," Waltrip said of writing the book. "It was a chance to share stories about somebody millions of people loved without knowing him and I loved because I knew him. It was a personal thing about someone who made a huge difference in my life and what it was like to be his friend.
"I wrote the book because I thought it would be therapeutic. I'll never be able to understand why that day turned out the way that it did."
No one will, but Waltrip has moved on with a team that struggled in its infancy but has improved every season.
Reutimann won last season at Chicagoland Speedway and posted a career-best six top-10s. He also had a have-at-it moment when he punted Kyle Busch at Kansas.
I wrote the book because I thought it would be therapeutic. I'll never be able to understand why that day turned out the way that it did.” -- Michael Waltrip
Truex, in his first season at MWR, had seven top-10s but was a disappointing 22nd in the standings.
Both men should benefit this year from having former Cup champion Bobby Labonte as part of the program. Labonte replaces Marcos Ambrose in the No. 47 Toyota for JTG/Daugherty Racing. The team has a technical alliance with MWR and operates as a third car for the operation.
"It's good to see Bobby rejuvenated with this great opportunity on our team," said crew chief Frank Kerr. "We're going to give him every resource possible to get back to Victory Lane."
Reutimann hopes the new rule this season to reward winning plays into his hands. The last two spots of the Chase are wild cards based on victories for drivers outside the top 10 but still ranked in the top 20, something Reutimann has done the last two seasons.
"If it helps me get in [the Chase], I'm all for it," Reutimann said during testing at Daytona. "A little more emphasis on winning is OK by me. I ran into problems early in the  season that cost us a shot at the Chase. We ran up front our fair share, too, and felt we were just as good as a lot of the Chase teams throughout the year.
"And we won a race. I think there were four of us [Jamie McMurray, Ryan Newman, Juan Pablo Montoya and Reutimann] that won races but were on the outside looking in when the Chase came around. The new system seems to reward both consistency and wins. That's a good thing."
MWR is capable of winning a few races this year, and with new pavement and a new nose on the cars, it seems almost anyone is capable of winning the Daytona 500 next week.
Waltrip, who also won the 2003 Daytona 500, will take that to heart and hope he can honor Earnhardt in Victory Lane 10 years after his friend didn't get the chance to share the moment with him.
Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Blount can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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2011 Daytona 500
The 53rd running of the Daytona 500 is on the horizon, with a new racing surface greeting competitors heading into a new season of hope. It all begins Feb. 20 at Daytona International Speedway.