Waltrip makes happy way into final 500

5/6/2010 - NASCAR

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Michael Waltrip stood dejected outside the infield care center at Daytona International Speedway as Michael McDowell and Max Papis crossed the finish line to qualify for Sunday's Daytona 500.

"The 55 and 13," Waltrip said after the first of Thursday's two 150-mile qualifying races. "The 55. Hey! That's my car!"

He wished.

Waltrip decided weeks ago to switch to the No. 51 for what likely was his final attempt to qualify for the "Great American Race" he has won twice before -- in 2001, when team owner Dale Earnhardt was killed on the last lap of the race, and again in 2003 while still driving for Dale Earnhardt Inc.

On Thursday, Waltrip was confident to the point of calling up Twitter on his cell phone before the race to write, "Fun times. I'm gonna do it."

This wasn't a fun moment.

Waltrip crashed coming off Turn 4 with seven laps remaining in the first of Daytona's two Gatorade Duel qualifying races. The owner/driver of Michael Waltrip Racing then watched helplessly behind a portable fence outside the care center as the drivers who needed to get in on finishing order so he could get in on Saturday's qualifying speed came up short.

"It's disappointing," Waltrip said. "I've had the highest of highs here and the lowest of lows losing a friend. This is really tough."

The disappointment was brief. Waltrip ended up making the 500 on his speed from this past Saturday when Scott Speed raced his way into the field with a 14th-place finish in the second 150-mile Duel race.

Waltrip, watching from Speed TV's Hollywood Hotel, let out a big breath, pumped his fist and shouted, "Yes."

He then gave one of those Waltrip comments that make you wonder what's upstairs and leave you thirsting for more at the same time.

"I love Scott Speed," he said of the fellow Toyota driver. "I don't care what he does with his toenails."

Those within earshot burst into laughter.

"Scott is special, for sure," Waltrip later said. "You can tell that by his little [knit] hat he had on. People don't think I'm that bright at times, and I couldn't care less. People think he's kind of weird, too, and he don't care either.

"That's how we formed our relationship. Two people that are comfortable with who they are and don't really care a whole bunch about what other people think about that."

Waltrip was anything but comfortable as he watched the final 12 laps of the second race. He looked more like a man on death row, fidgeting and squirming in his seat with television cameras documenting every move.

You could tell the strain of knowing his driving career is near an end was taking its toll. Barring a rush of sponsor demand, Talladega Superspeedway is the only other venue on Waltrip's 2010 schedule.

Likely his driving career.

"As far as the last 500, I need to just become a car owner because this was hard today," Waltrip said. "I got to prove myself on Sunday in the 500 or at Talladega, where I know I'm going to run like I can, [and] indeed make the moves to win these races.

"I didn't do anything today to impress myself, and that's disappointing."

But the disappointment was soothed by making the race. And the good news is Waltrip won't go far away.

MWR helped put six cars -- Waltrip, Martin Truex Jr., David Reutimann, Marcos Ambrose, Papis and McDowell -- into the 500. The organization is quickly moving into the upper tier in the sport, and Waltrip is a big reason for that.

As was written here a few weeks ago, the sport needs more owners like Waltrip. He's willing to put himself out there, as we've seen in an offseason in which he has appeared on everything from Fox's "Sean Hannity Show" to Jeff Foxworthy's "Are You Smarter Than A 5th Grader?"

Stepping aside from a full-time ride to make room for Truex -- and giving up his number and allowing McDowell to drive it for partner Prism Motorsports -- shows he's not stuck on himself like some fellow competitors are.

Make what jokes you will about him as a driver, he's still respected.

"I'm sure he's got a lot of emotions, and I talked to him a little bit about stepping away and whatnot," Denny Hamlin said. "He's still got a huge passion for our sport, but he's at the point where he realizes that those other cars he's fielding are contending for Chases each and every year.

"I think everyone pulls for Michael, no matter what he may say or how dumb it may be."

Speed, painted toenails and all, definitely was pulling for Waltrip.

"Absolutely," he said. "Michael, he's a big teddy bear that guy. The big man back there deserves to be in it."

Waltrip is passionate about Daytona. It's where he got his first win. It's where he suffered his biggest embarrassment when his first MWR car was disqualified for having an illegal substance in its engine.

You could hear his passion -- and disappointment -- Thursday as his car came to a stop after the spinout.

"Damn, I hate I done that," he said, sounding like a kid who just had his favorite toy taken away. "Sorry, guys."

Waltrip has nothing to be sorry for. He endured going winless for the first 452 races of his career and seeing that streak end on the day Earnhardt died. He had the guts to put up everything he owned to start a new team when Toyota came on board.

And he continues to be one of the sport's biggest ambassadors and best salesmen, getting full sponsorship for his cars in one of the toughest economies ever.

But, more than anything, Waltrip wanted to race one more 500. He wanted to feel the same thrill McDowell did making the race for the first time.

"I actually feel like I won the Daytona 500," McDowell said. "It's unbelievable. I'm just really, really happy for everyone at Prism Motorsports. I want to thank Michael Waltrip for giving me this 55 number to run, and hopefully it will bring us good luck."

So does Waltrip. He also can't wait to race against his old number, still believing he has the talent to win the 500 -- or any plate race.

Why not? All four of his career wins came at Daytona or Talladega.

But if Waltrip doesn't win again, which he likely won't, it's not the end of the world. His best years might be ahead of him.

"I figured when I woke up this morning I'd be crying before the day was over," Waltrip said. "I just didn't know if it would be because I was happy or because I was sad.

"And then I damn sure didn't know it would be both within an hour of each other."

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