Commentary

Waltrip's career may not be storied, but there are some good stories

So Michael Waltrip is making his 1,000th career NASCAR start. Is that cause for celebration or wonder at his perseverance? Whichever, Waltrip has enjoyed the ride, and even if his career isn't storied, there are some fine stories to tell, writes Ed Hinton.

Updated: October 25, 2008, 10:38 PM ET
By Ed Hinton | ESPN.com

Michael WaltripRacingOne/Getty ImagesMichael Waltrip's 2003 Daytona 500 victory stands as his crowning achievement ... so far.

HAMPTON, Ga. -- If this were Michael Waltrip's 1,000th TV commercial, I could understand. Nobody's better at making those.

But his 1,000th NASCAR race? I just can't see how the poor guy has stood it, as many times as he's been put down, knocked down and brought down … and as many races as he's lost.

NASCAR's singular study in perseverance makes his 1,000th NASCAR start in Sunday's Pep Boys 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway (1 p.m. ET, ABC).

That's the most of any driver other than Richard Petty, who started 1,184.

Even Mikey's milestone has been denounced by Petty as contrived. Petty's starts were all at Cup level. Mikey's starts break down to 721 in Cup, 270 in Nationwide and eight in trucks.

"You got all these baseball players, they played Little League ball," Petty said last week. "But they don't say nothin' about it when they look at their major league records. So don't even bring [Waltrip's mark] in, as far as I'm concerned."

Waltrip's head was high -- it always is -- when I stopped by his garage stall at Atlanta Motor Speedway and asked him about Petty.

"That's his opinion, and I respect it," Waltrip said of the man who took Mikey into his home to live in the youthful stages of his career. "It doesn't change the fact that I've been wandering around here making a lot of starts over the last 25 years. I didn't do it for the numbers. I did it because it's what I love to do."

He must.

It's easy to stick around for your first 1,000 races if they net you 200 wins and seven championships, as they did for Petty. The toil-to-reward ratio has been far harder for Waltrip, whose first 999 starts have produced four Cup points wins -- including two Daytona 500s -- plus an All-Star win and 11 Nationwide victories.

Along the way he's been called names, including "a piece of s---" by Robby Gordon in 2005 and "the worst driver in NASCAR" by Clint Bowyer just this season.

Yet, "there's been a lot of fun things happen along the way," Waltrip said. "A lot of disappointments and a lot of ups and downs, for sure."

[+] EnlargeMichael Waltrip Bristol Crash
Bristol Motor SpeedwayMichael Waltrip's car headed to the wall at Bristol in 1990, and a gate collapsed ...

Media members have asked him lately for his top five memories, and he has been nebulous about that, unable to narrow them down from some second-place finish here or there that the public doesn't remember.

So I picked his highlight film for him, his five most famous moments in chronological order, and ran them by him, and he largely agreed.

The first was the brightest and happiest -- he beamed at the memory. In some ways it's the saddest.

It was his first NASCAR win, in 1983, here at what was then called Atlanta International Raceway, in the now-defunct Dash series for subcompact cars. He doesn't count Dash races among his 999.

He was 19, and "I thought I was going to be pretty good at this."

[+] EnlargeMichael Waltrip Bristol Crash
Bristol Motor Speedway... hitting the concrete wall head-on, the car started to disintegrate ...

So did I. From here that day, I wrote that Darrell Waltrip's little brother showed all the promise of following the great success of the fiery, then-reigning Cup champion.

As he turned 20, "I went on to win the [Dash] championship in '83. I won six races and I think 12 poles. And I just felt like I had what it took to be a champion in Cup."

That it never happened is the sad part, when you think of all those sky-high hopes of 25 years ago.

The second highlight is a dubious distinction: "One of the worst wrecks ever," he recalled. "You're right. That's worth talking about."

In Bristol, Tenn., in 1990, his car literally disintegrated when a gate in the wall collapsed and he hit the end of the concrete wall head-on. There was nothing left but a pile of rubble.

[+] EnlargeMichael Waltrip Bristol Crash
Bristol Motor Speedway... spinning off the wall, pieces continued flying from the wreckage with Waltrip still inside ...

When Waltrip began to work his way out of the junk heap, he saw Darrell standing there crying and asked, baffled, "What are you crying about?"

One newspaper editor of the time recalls getting this roller-coaster phone call from his motorsports writer: "David, Michael Waltrip's dead. No, wait a minute, there he is."

"I didn't realize the magnitude of what everybody had seen," Waltrip said the other day. "I knew I wasn't hurt. I really didn't understand what the big deal was.

"I was like, 'I'm fine! I'm fine! What's wrong with y'all?' Then they made me go to the hospital, and when I saw it on TV, I said, 'Wow! That was kind of a big deal.'

[+] EnlargeMichael Waltrip Bristol Crash
Bristol Motor Speedway... when the car finally came to rest, many believed Michael Waltrip would have to be laid to rest. He himself called it, "One of the worst wrecks ever."

"But I always felt that if I had died right then, that would have been the most famous thing I was famous for. And I didn't think that was the way it was supposed to work. I thought I was supposed to win a bunch of races."

But he remained winless in Cup until 1996 and the third highlight: "The All-Star race for the Wood Brothers. That was their family car. That was the equivalent of a dad saying, 'Son, here's my family car. You be careful with it.' They entrusted me with it, and to go win the All-Star race for them was special to me."

He did it the hard way, the unprecedented way. Not having qualified for the big event, he started in the Open, won it, transferred to the All-Star race, and won that. Not until Kasey Kahne, just this year, would anyone equal that feat.

The most bittersweet day of his career is the fourth highlight:

As he took the checkered flag at the Daytona 500 of 2001 -- there is no better place nor race to get your first Cup points win -- the car owner who had given him the best ride of his life, and even blocked traffic behind him to help him win, was killed. That was Dale Earnhardt.

In the winner's news conference, Waltrip testily debated with the media once again about whether he was a good driver, deserving of a Daytona 500 win. For him it was the same old story -- but he hadn't even been told that Earnhardt was dead.

"Everybody was keeping that from me. I did not know Dale had died until later that night," he said. In Victory Lane, and then in front of the media, "I just didn't understand where he was. I was like, 'Why isn't he here?' And everyone was like, 'He's OK, he's OK.'

"That was a tough day. He'd basically told me when he hired me, 'Look, you got a lot of ability, but you haven't managed your career very well. I'm gonna take over that part of it for you.'

Michael Waltrip

You can't convince me today that the next 100 aren't going to be the best of my career. … I've always believed my best days were just around the corner.

-- Michael Waltrip

"And he never got a chance to do that."

Might things have been different for Waltrip since 2001 if Earnhardt had lived? Might there be more wins, more respect?

"I don't know. But I know it changed our plans tremendously," he said.

He paused, silent, then suddenly said, "Then fast-forward," and went into the fifth highlight:

"To be able to go back there and win again in '03. That was real special to me, because we could actually stand there and cheer about winning the Daytona 500. We dominated, and we made all the right moves to win that race, and I was so proud of that accomplishment in light of what had happened a couple of years before."

To this day in his career, "a lot of people want to say this and that and be negative," he said. "There's been a lot of good times over 25 years and 1,000 races."

Would he have stayed so long if someone, somehow, had dashed those soaring hopes of a 19-year-old at Atlanta in 1983?

He smiled.

"You can't convince me today that the next 100 aren't going to be the best of my career. … I've always believed my best days were just around the corner."

Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at edward.t.hinton@espn3.com.

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