Commentary

Waltrip still haunted by 'that day'

Originally Published: February 7, 2011
By Ed Hinton | ESPN.com

It has taken Michael Waltrip nearly a decade to deal with that day, Feb. 18, 2001. He is not over it. Just facing up to it.

"For nine years, people have been asking me about that day," he said recently. "And I just avoided the subject. I would say something brief, something sort of scripted in my mind.

"Never dug into it at all. And I didn't want to."

But he added, "As I left Daytona [last] February, I realized that the next time I got there would be the 10th anniversary. I was reminded of that by people asking and talking.

"And so in order to try and figure out how I felt about it -- because honestly, I hadn't thought in depth about it at all -- I thought I better figure out what happened.

"And try to come to terms with what it did to me."

With what it did to a man who had lost all 462 Cup races he had started until that day …

Who was delivered from his misery by Dale Earnhardt, who determined to make him a winner, who put him in a sure-thing car and then orchestrated the Daytona 500 as only Earnhardt could, so that either Waltrip or Dale Earnhardt Jr. would win it …

Who outran Junior in the final laps as they broke away from the field, with Senior blocking for them from behind, and broke his oh-for-462 streak in NASCAR's biggest race …

Who spent a surreal half-hour in Victory Lane, wondering where his car owner was, asking occasionally "Where's Dale?" before old friend Ken Schrader approached him, looking strange, looking grave, and grasped him hard by both arms and told him something was wrong. Bad wrong …

Who went through a postrace press conference from whence he remembers no questions or answers, and then skipped the rest of the celebration and climbed into a van with his wife, Buffy, to be driven to the privacy of their motor coach …

Who asked as they rode, "What's going on?" …

Who saw his wife shake her head, heard her say, "It's not good."

Who, in the silence of the coach, in the blink of his wife's tear-filled eyes, heard, "He's dead."

"Everything since then has been affected by that day," Waltrip said of his life as he sat in his dark, richly appointed office in the Michael Waltrip Racing building that houses his team, a museum and fan attractions.

[+] EnlargeMichael Waltrip
AP Photo/Tony GutierrezMichael Waltrip had snapped his 0-for-462 streak just as his boss had predicted and the party was on. It didn't last very long.

"If you look around here, I've got a big race shop and a couple of Daytona 500 trophies [he won another in 2003] and --

"But I don't have a wife anymore. And I don't live with my daughters. And so obviously, a lot has gone down in the last nine years for me."

That is why he decided to write a book about it, currently a New York Times best-seller, entitled "In the Blink of an Eye: Dale, Daytona, and the Day that Changed Everything."

And that is why he agreed to sit down with ESPN.com for a lengthy interview about it.

Somehow, talking about it helps now, after more than nine years of near silence and suppressing it.

For that 10th anniversary, he will come out of his semi-retirement and try to make the field for Sunday's Daytona 500.

And, like a lot of people who are hurting inside, he is trying stand-up comedy.

He remembers the morning of Feb. 18, 2001, as "the most peaceful morning I'd ever spent in my life. I woke up and just lay in bed thinking about what that day could mean."

He could win the Daytona 500. He really could. And it could change everything.

It really would.

Four hundred thirty-two times he had started Cup races. He'd lost every one of them. Long gone was the aura of potential as Darrell Waltrip's little brother. Mainly now, Michael Waltrip was best known as a driver everybody liked, a de facto stand-up comic for TV cameras in the garages, a great pitchman for sponsors. But not a winner. Not at all.

Dale Earnhardt was bound damn determined to change that.

"He believed he could make me a winner," Waltrip said. "I think he liked the thought of that, after I had struggled for so long. I think he wanted to show people that his cars were good, and if I got in 'em I could win in 'em, and I would win in 'em."

Eventually that morning, younger daughter Macy, then age 3, would awaken him fully by jumping on him. But for now he was half-awake, half-dozing, half-savoring all that had come together.

The previous fall, Earnhardt had put together a deal with NAPA auto parts to field a third Dale Earnhardt Inc. car for Waltrip, as a teammate to Dale Earnhardt Jr. and promising young Steve Park. Big E, of course, continued to drive the notorious black No. 3 for the Richard Childress Racing team.

Offseason testing had gone so well for the DEI team that when they arrived at Daytona, "I was confident that I not only could win races, but I could win the championship," Waltrip recalled.

But as Speedweeks opened, "People would say, 'A lot of pressure now, right?'"

Meaning this was it. No more excuses about driving for mediocre teams. DW's little brother must now put up or shut up in the DEI cars that were just beginning to threaten dominance, especially on restrictor-plate tracks.

"And I would say, and I meant it, and I remember thinking it: 'The pressure is off. I've finally got the ride I need. I believe this is the ride I can go win races with.'"

Then on Thursday, in his 125-mile qualifying race, he missed a shift on the last restart, lost his opportunity to win and dampened his great feeling -- "the restart screwed with it. But Dale fixed all that."

Earnhardt wound up making winless Michael Waltrip feel even more confident than ever.

Friday morning, "I slipped out of my motor home to go to the garage and check on the team. I almost felt like I was trying to tiptoe past Dale's bus. I didn't want to see him. I didn't want to talk about it. And it was funny.

"He stuck his head out the door and came out and yelled at me, 'Hey! Get over here!'

"He said, 'Get in here!'

"I said, 'Man, I screwed up. I should have won that race yesterday.' He said, 'No, you shouldn't have. I should have.'

"I said, 'I missed a shift.'

"He said, 'I don't care about that. I want to talk about how we're gonna win this race.'

"Because of the rules, with the aero package they had, he said, 'There's no way one guy's gonna win this race. It's gonna take teamwork.'

"Then he said, 'Me and you and Dale Jr. are gonna win it. We're gonna work together.'

"I said, 'Well, Steve Park -- he'll help too, right?'

"He goes, 'He don't get the draft like you and Dale Jr. do. He probably won't be around.'"

[+] EnlargeDale Earnhardt
AP Photo/Russell WilliamsDale Earnhardt waves to the crowd before the 2001 Daytona 500, moments after he had walked to pit road with his team's newest driver, Michael Waltrip.

At this point Waltrip remembered February after February since 2001, Friday morning after Friday morning of Speedweeks after Speedweeks.

"I remember, in years since, walking by that spot, looking over there to see if maybe his bus was still there. Remembering that's where that happened. Because if it weren't for that yell, then I wouldn't have been mentally ready to win that race.

"I was able to take that discussion, and his confidence in me being able to win, and us winning together, and then I spent the next two days building on that -- to where, when it was almost time to go to driver introductions on Sunday morning, instead of having to build myself up, I had to bring myself down a couple of notches.

"I had to sit there and say, 'OK, patience. Relax. Take it easy. This is a long race. You know the plan. The plan is, we'll all get together at the end. And you've got to get to the end.'"

Waltrip's next memory, and his last one of talking with Earnhardt, is this: "Buffy coordinated with Teresa [Earnhardt's wife] for us four to walk out to pit road together. I remember having a nice, leisurely walk with him. He was relaxed. He was confident and calm. I remember that well. It felt more like a friend than a car owner.

"We were just buddies walking out to get in our cars and go racing. We didn't talk about the plan. He didn't really say anything about the race. It felt more like we were just talking about the weather, and fishing, or whatever …"

Finally, green flag.

"The car wasn't right in the early part of the race," Waltrip recalled. "I was patient. I took my time and stayed out of trouble. When I got the car right, then I had the confidence, and the knowledge, and the ability, to drive it to the front …

"I don't think I led until Lap 100 [the halfway point], maybe. Sometime in the first half."

Still, Waltrip and the two Earnhardts weren't able to work together "because there's 30-something cars in the lead pack," and amidst such a swirl it's hard for teammates to find one another.

"Then we came to that red flag."

A massive pileup of 18 cars, 27 laps from the finish, blocked the backstretch.

"We rolled to a stop. I look in my mirror. I'm leading, Dale Jr.'s second, Dale's third …

"I remember saying on the radio, 'Where's Park running? Did he make it?' And they said, 'No, he got in that wreck.'

"And that was the first time, I think, that I really was amazed -- the first time I really thought hard about the plan. I wasn't confident that the three of us could team up, with 35 cars around us. That's a little unrealistic.

"But all of a sudden, I'm like, 'Holy cow! This plan is getting ready to go into action. We're getting ready to run to the end of this race…'"

There was no communication among the three cars sitting stopped, 1-2-3.

"This is my first race with them. I don't know what to do. I pulled to a stop. They didn't pull up beside me, so I didn't wave at 'em or nothing. I wanted them to think I was cool.

"So I just sat there in amazement at what I saw, and what all had happened."

Waltrip said that as the field rolled again, "We went to pit road, and I think I went in first and came out fourth …

"With maybe 20 to go, I'm beside Dale, and for no reason I pull ahead of him and get in line. When that happened, I thought, 'He just let me in!' … I was passing Dale and I wasn't gonna make it. I remember pulling over and getting in front of him …. I remember thinking, 'I've never seen him let anybody in…'

[+] EnlargeMichael Waltrip
AP Photo/Tony GutierrezMichael Waltrip was a mix of emotions in Victory Lane after winning the 2001 Daytona 500. He found out there his boss and friend Dale Earnhardt was hurt, but he did not yet know he was dead.

"I think when Dale started his engine that day, he knew me or Dale Jr. was going to win it. I don't think he thought he was going to win it.

"I think he realized that he was the only one smart enough to ensure that the other guy won.

"He was blocking. In my opinion, if the roles had been reversed and it was Dale Jr. first and me second, Dale would have done the same thing …"

After the final restart, "It was still a couple more laps before he got it all lined up, 1-2-3.

"I guarantee you there's no way I could have done what Dale did, and I don't believe Dale Jr. could have done what Dale did. He made sure it happened. … He didn't give it a chance to fail.

"He made sure he did everything to get us in those positions. … Once Dale Jr. and I got there, he went into full-blown defense mode to keep everybody off of us."

If he hadn't, then a pack led by Sterling Marlin and Ken Schrader "would have gotten there," Waltrip said. "Reason I say that is one time, I think with 12 to go, Sterling makes it all the way to there [up alongside Waltrip]. And Sterling's fast. Somebody's with him. They made that much progress.

"We stuck together and cleared them again, and that was the last time somebody got up there on me and Dale Jr. So if it wasn't for Dale, one might think that they would have gotten us, for sure …

"Listen to the funny thing about the plan: I'm running around there, 10 to go, nine to go, eight to go, looking in my mirror, and all I can see is that red car [Dale Jr.'s Budweiser No. 8], and I thought: Wonder if he knows about this plan.

"I didn't know him at all. And I thought, 'Well, it sure would have been a good idea to ask him before now.' I guess you're not going to find out until the very end, are you?

"That's so much like race car drivers. Dale told me what we were going to do and I'm like, 'That's cool. I'm in. I'll do whatever you say, boss.'

"Then I forgot to check with the other guy to see if he was in or not.

"But that sort of [began] a theme with Dale Jr. and I. We had all that success with restrictor-plate racing through '02, '03 and those years [11 wins in 16 plate races between them, five at Daytona, six at Talladega, from 2001-04]. And we never, one time, talked about what we were going to do.

"Always, our plan was, both of us knew what we were doing, we would both get to the front, and when we got there we would stick together. Whoever got there first, the other one would push 'em …"

Finally, a while after Feb. 18, 2001, "We talked about it," Waltrip said, "and he said his dad had told him what we were going to do."

In some ways Waltrip is glad he was uncertain -- "If I had known that, I'd have felt a lot better. But I might have let my guard down and not have done a perfect ending to the race. … I drove it all the way to the checkered. Sometimes you're liable to get nonchalant. If I had slipped up at all and given him a place to go, he would have said, 'Well, Dad, he slid up. I couldn't help it.'"

And now at last, white flag. One lap to go.

"When I took the white, I loved what I saw. I'd seen every restrictor-plate race from every seat in the [field] except for that one [the lead]. But looking at what I saw, I didn't feel like I could get beat."

He recalls thinking, "This is looking very good. They're all lined up. There are no gaps. We're all on top of each other. They can't make a run to get me."

[+] EnlargeDale Earnhardt
AP Photo/Glenn SmithKen Schrader's car hits the right side of Dale Earnhardt's as the No. 3 heads for the Turn 4 wall.

Down the backstretch, as Marlin and Schrader made it three-wide with Earnhardt Sr. for third, slowing down all three cars, "I remember thinking, 'They ain't beatin' me. There's no way Dale Jr. can do it on his own, because if he did have a run he couldn't do anything with it [without a push from the others]. One car alone couldn't do it. And the other three were side by side and that won't work …

"I remember thinking, before I got to Turn 3, I thought, 'Well, if I can make two left-hand turns and the tires don't blow out and the motor don't blow up, I'm gonna win this race.'"

At Daytona, Waltrip said, "You never stop looking in the mirror. I couldn't see much more than just Dale Jr … when you're going straight, you pretty much see the guy behind you.

"Then I see all this flare-out." That is, cars coming out every which way from behind Dale Jr.

"Then I heard, 'Crash behind you. Bring it home.' And I did just that."

On that last lap, before that crash, "One thing I know that Dale knew for a fact was that I was going to win and Dale Jr. was going to run second. And Dale knows this: He didn't need to cut Sterling off [to assure their win]. The race was over. We won.

"That was just Dale trying to race to get third. I think when Sterling got beside him, he was like, 'Uh-uh. It's 1-2-3 today.' … He was like, 'No, no, no, you can't get in there.'

"He had done it masterfully for 20 laps. And he just needed to make one more block."

In the immediate aftermath, distraught Earnhardt fans tried to blame Marlin for the fatal accident, although all of Marlin's peers, including Waltrip, have said ever since that Marlin did nothing wrong.

"Sterling was there and Dale tried to cut him off," Waltrip recalled. "And it turned Dale into the wall. It's just that simple. That's what happened."

And in the blink of an eye, Dale Earnhardt was gone, upon hitting the wall at a deadly "1 o'clock angle," as engineers called the impact, the right front of the car first.

At first, Waltrip had no idea. Nobody did, until after the cool-down lap, when Schrader -- who had bumped Earnhardt as the black 3 car slid toward the wall -- climbed out of his own car at the wreck scene to check on his close friend.

The image of Schrader looking inside the 3 car, recoiling with an awful look on his face, and gesturing for safety workers to hurry, is indelible in the mind of virtually every NASCAR fan.

"When I got to Victory Lane," Waltrip said, "I got out of the car and did an interview with [Fox's Dick] Berggren," Waltrip remembered. "Then he put Darrell on [DW was Fox's new color commentator, so it was natural to let him interview his brother from the tower].

"I'd say the first half-hour, I didn't realize nothin'. You've got to understand, I'd been trying to get to Victory Lane my whole career. And I hadn't been able to pull it off.

"I vividly recall talking to my brother, and I vividly recall hugging my daughters and my wife. And the confetti. But that first half-hour, it's -- it's -- I didn't know nothin'. I was in shock. I think I literally was in shock.

"And then I remember asking somebody, 'Where's Dale?'"

Surely his benefactor, who had promised him he would win in DEI cars and then came up with a master plan for the Daytona 500 and carried it out, would be there to celebrate with his beneficiary, and to gloat that he'd made a winner of an oh-for-462 driver.

"It must have just dawned on me … I just said, 'Hey, where's Dale?' And one of our crew guys, or somebody, said, 'Well, he got in that wreck. But he's all right. He's gonna be here in a little bit.'"

[+] EnlargeMichael Waltrip, Dale Earnhardt Jr
ISC Archives/Getty ImagesMichael Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt Jr. brought their Dale Earnhardt Inc. cars home 1-2 in the 2001 Daytona 500 by sticking to the strategy Dale Earnhardt had planned.

Minutes wore on, "and then I got to thinking, 'Well, surely Dale's coming.' This was his win too. He was a big part of this. And so I thought, 'Well, that's weird,' and I didn't really know Dale Jr., but I sure thought he would have come down here.

"And then I began to ask Ty [Norris, who managed DEI for Earnhardt] and Buffy where Dale was. And I was getting, 'He's fine; he's in the infield care center.' And I was buying that. That sounded reasonable to me …

"But Schrader. I remember seeing him come into Victory Lane and I thought, 'Finally! Here comes somebody I know to say congratulations.' But, like I say in the book, he didn't look right. He had on a big pair of sunglasses, which I never remember seeing him wear, and a big old hat. I thought, well, he doesn't look normal.

"He walked up and grabbed me, and he said, 'This isn't good.'"

Waltrip thought at first Schrader was razzing him about winning at last.

"I said, 'I know it's a bit of a shock, Schrader, that I'm here in Victory Lane.' Because we usually kid each other all the time. 'But it can't be that bad, can it?'

"He goes, 'No, no. Dale. He's not good. He's hurt.'

"And I said, 'What do you mean?'

"He said, 'He's hurt. Bad.'

"And then he left. He walked off, and I was confused at that point …"

The winner's press conference in those days was held in the press box, high above the grandstands. Confused and almost dazed, Waltrip allowed himself to be helped into the van for the ride across the racetrack and up the elevator.

"I was just doing what I was told. But the press box thing just kind of sent me over the top. … 'How does it feel to win the greatest race?' I didn't want to talk about that.

"It didn't matter anymore. What mattered was, 'How bad was Dale?' Nobody would tell me anything except Schrader. I wanted to know more details. I didn't want to talk about the race anymore …

"I remember wanting to be alone. I wanted to be alone so bad …

"I got in the van to go to the bus [his motor coach]. I think I asked Buffy, 'What's going on?'

And she just shook her head and said, 'It's not good.'

"Then we got to the bus, and I said, 'He's gonna be OK, right?'

"And she said, 'No. He's dead.'"

"And that was the first time that I knew for sure.

"We just hugged each other and cried. We were just in disbelief. It was like, 'How?'

"I gave myself maybe half an hour, or an hour, before people started coming by to check on me. I don't remember who all. I remember Dale Jarrett. I remember [NASCAR president Mike] Helton. My brother …

"Buffy got Macy off with the nanny and all of the family had cleared out …

"I didn't sleep much. Just stayed in bed. I think most of that night I had this 'Why me?' attitude. 'Why does this have to happen to me?'"

Into the night of Feb. 18, into the wee hours of Feb. 19, "lying in bed, I determined that since I'm a Christian, I believe we all have our days -- our days are numbered. I figured it was Dale's day to die, and I was the best person to win the race and be able to honor him in the victory."

Indeed, media stories poured out of Daytona Beach during those hours dealing with one of Earnhardt's lesser-known traits, his enormous heart, and how there was no better example than his plucking Waltrip from mediocrity and making him a winner.

Maybe Waltrip was the perfect guy.

"I went to bed feeling pretty low, and obviously had a crappy attitude about life, and I think I woke up the next day determined to do all I could to make other people feel better about what had happened that day …

"Just telling people what I believe Dale's fate was. Which -- there's a Bible verse that says, 'In the blink of an eye you're in the presence of the Lord.' So if, when he turned and saw that wall coming, if he closed his eyes and said, 'Forgive me, Lord,' then he would have been immediately in the presence of the Lord."

Waltrip told people that, and "that sort of became my mission, to try to help heal some wounds."

But he said he began to realize, more than nine years afterward, "I didn't deal with how it made me feel, or what it did to me."

As he grew more and more "distant" -- the only word he uses in his book -- from those around him, including Buffy, they eventually decided to separate, and divorced in 2010.

By the end of 2005, without Dale Sr. running the team, DEI deteriorated and Waltrip was squeezed out.

For 2007 he fielded his own team, a flagship for Toyota's new NASCAR effort, but was knocked down at the very outset, at Daytona that February, by a cheating scandal involving fuel additives.

Enormously embarrassed, he held a press conference at Daytona that was one long mea maxima culpa, but maintained -- and still maintains -- he had no knowledge of the additive.

The incident so wounded the team that it soon fell into financial trouble, but billionaire Rob Kauffman bought a 50 percent share in MWR later in '07, and the team was off and running from there, with drivers Martin Truex Jr. and David Reutimann.

So the racing is going OK. But the haunting continues from Feb. 18, 2001.

"I didn't handle the aftermath of that day very well personally. I put up a good public facade, I think … I think if I had handled it better, my life might look different today than it does."

So now he's facing up to that day, trying to deal with it. But in the end, Waltrip said, "I don't think human beings are designed to have that big of a range of emotion."

And so after a decade, "there's parts of it I'll never understand -- it's just too deep."

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