Commentary

From fry cook to Daytona 500 winner

Updated: November 16, 2010, 2:40 PM ET
By David Newton | ESPN.com

Michael WaltripJason Smith/Getty ImagesMichael Waltrip, third from left, is transitioning from full-time driver to team owner. Waltrip's driver stable features Trevor Bayne, David Reutimann, Martin Truex Jr., Ryan Truex and Marcos Ambrose.

CONCORD, N.C. -- Before Michael Waltrip won his first Daytona 500, before he became a Sprint Cup owner and television personality, he flipped hamburgers.

Hold the pickle, hold the lettuce.

OK, the jingle is for another franchise, but picture a 16-year-old Waltrip turning those square Wendy's burgers, running the fry basket and wearing a hairnet at the Owensboro, Ky., franchise.

"Worked there two weeks," Waltrip said with a laugh. "Cut my finger and quit that night. I said I couldn't handle that. It still hurts. I can tell here right at the end."

Waltrip pointed to where the injury occurred, grimacing as though it had just happened.

"The only cool thing was sometimes my buddies would come by and order a small Coke, and if we had any leftover hamburgers I would put them in their bag, too," Waltrip continued. "We were just going to throw them away and my buddies didn't have any money, so I was just helping out."

[+] EnlargeWaltrip
AP Photo/John RaouxFrom working the fry station at Wendy's to winning the Daytona 500 ... twice. Who woulda thunk?

Waltrip didn't have a lot of money back then, either. He got the job to help pay for his expenses to race go-karts.

"I wanted to race my whole life, but my mom and dad made it very clear from a young age that they weren't getting in on the financing of this program," the two-time Daytona 500 champion said. "I had a sponsor who paid for the parts and pieces. I had to pay for my travel and food. That meant I had to chip in on gas and other things.

"That's why I usually had a job."

Waltrip began working at the age of 12 when he babysat his niece and nephew while his sister worked a night-shift job. Then came the short-lived job at Wendy's, followed by a job at the local Pepsi bottling plant his father ran.

"I moved way up in the world with that little transition from the hamburger world to the soft drink world," said Waltrip, noting that he went from earning $2.65 an hour at Wendy's to $4.30 an hour at Pepsi. "But that was hard work.

"That might be why I like Coca-Cola so much today. Pepsi leaves a bad taste in my mouth."

That's the famous Waltrip speaking, the one who pushes sponsors as well or better than anybody in the Cup garage.

But he's always been a kidder, even before he became famous. Having an older brother like Darrell Waltrip made that essential.

"I certainly always enjoyed laughing," Waltrip said. "I had very witty parents. I grew up around that, so, yeah, I would say I always found it was more fun to laugh than it is to cry. That's sort of the way I approached life.

"It certainly makes tough times more bearable."

Waltrip went through a lot of tough times before becoming famous. He went 463 Sprint Cup races before collecting his first win in the 2001 Daytona 500, and that was overshadowed by the death of car owner Dale Earnhardt.

It wasn't until he won his second Daytona 500, in 2003, that Waltrip truly got to enjoy a Cup victory. Because he won only four Cup races from the time he ran his first in 1985 until he stepped down as a full-time driver after last season, many would argue that he's more famous for his NAPA commercials and role as a television commentator.

But being famous wasn't Waltrip's goal.

"I never thought about it," he said. "I just wanted to race. I never was confident enough to think it would work out. I didn't sit around and plot my future. I just raced one race at a time and got lucky to do what I love to do.

"Then circumstances allowed me to win some big races."

But before that he was flipping hamburgers and doing other odd jobs that instilled in him a work ethic that remains strong today.

"It certainly put some responsibility on making things work out," Waltrip said. "I try to instill that in my daughters so they understand how this world works. You work hard, pay your way and hopefully you're talented and good enough and good things will come your way because of your dedication and commitment."

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

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