Waltrip in a good place ... so far
Michael Waltrip won't be in a race car Friday afternoon, so instead he'll spend the day with Dr. Phil.
A handful of road course absences notwithstanding, Waltrip performed the same Friday routine for a quarter-century. Show up at the track, get dressed and go to work shaking down a race car with his team; qualify and see where the proverbial cards fall.
Friday meant being consumed by on-track performance, which ultimately dictated mood and -- in his mind -- merit.
But this Friday in Fontana, Calif.?
"I'm supposed to play golf with Ron White and Dr. Phil," Waltrip said, laughing. "I couldn't have done that a year ago. Ron wants you to be [messed] up, and Dr. Phil tries to prevent you from being that way. How funny is that?"
White, of course, is the whiskey-on-the-rocks comedic wonder from "Blue Collar Comedy Tour" fame that made "Tater Salad" much more than that yellow goo your granny whips up every other summer Sunday. And Dr. Phil, well y'all know all about him.
(Wonder who'll be the fourth? For some reason Billy Bob Thornton comes to mind. I digress )
Waltrip loaned his No. 55 to Patrick Carpentier at the road courses last season, and this year turned his ride over full-time to Martin Truex Jr. So he'd already mentally prepared for the day he showed up at the track with no race car to drive.
"It's not fun, and I haven't expressed to anybody yet that it's bothering me, because I think I'm in a pretty good place mentally to be transitioning," Waltrip said. "I guess it's what I have to do to make my team better. Life is about making sacrifices, and this is one I have to make for my team."
But he qualified for the Daytona 500, so this weekend at Auto Club Speedway is when reality will truly hit.
That, he said, was made evident to him last weekend at Daytona when, "I wasn't even done with the 2010 [Daytona] 500 and was already trying to figure out how to run the 2011 one. If I have things like that to look forward to, then I'll always feel connected, and it'll make the transition easier."
Retirement is difficult. Whether you're the shop foreman or Michael Jordan, walking away from the only life you've ever known is a tough decision. For many folks, their occupation is the defining factor in life. (Think about greeting a new acquaintance: What's your name? Where are you from? What do you do?)
The key difference is Jordan and Waltrip are accustomed to adulation. It's part of the fabric of the skill. Being a race car driver defined Michael Waltrip. Now, being a team owner and television personality must define him.
His older brother went through the same thing.
I guess it's what I have to do to make my team better. Life is about making sacrifices, and this is one I have to make for my team.” -- Michael Waltrip
"He believes, with the responsibilities I have as owner, and also the TV stuff I have going on, he thinks I'm OK," Michael said of DW, otherwise known as Darrell. "He's not too worried about me, I don't think."
I tried to contact Darrell to discuss the difficulty of hanging it up, but was unsuccessful. He admits in his book, "DW: A Lifetime Going Around in Circles," that he held on too long. I don't begrudge him that. Anyone who had even marginal success in the competitive arena struggles to look in the mirror and admit it's over. And that goes for high school basketball players and small college football players and rookie-ball flameouts, much less the fourth-winningest participant in the history of his sport. (Third, if you ask him.)
Michael certainly didn't sniff Darrell's on-track success, but the premise is the same. He has raced 760 times, won a couple 500s. Only eight men can say they won the Great American Race more than once.
He's a good team owner, able to delegate responsibilities and trust and believe in his people. That is evidenced by company morale. Truex told me recently that everyone -- from the shop floor to the pit box -- enjoys working there. Three years ago, most wondered whether Michael Waltrip Racing would still be around, much less be competitive. They get more competitive with each passing week.
For 25 years he suited up every Friday, one of the greatest promoters NASCAR racing has ever seen. That promoter is still around, but the channels through which he'll deliver the message dramatically change. Fridays will be quite different for him moving forward.
"Golf with those two cats Friday may be symbolic for me, a way to say, 'Hey, I don't have to be there [at the track] on Friday anymore," Michael said. "I'm probably taking advantage of that. I'm going to go [to the track] for a little while, but I'm going to leave, and that'll feel weird at first.
"If I do break down, at least I have Dr. Phil there to talk to. How funny is that?"
Hilarious. And fitting.
Marty Smith is a contributor to ESPN's NASCAR coverage. He can be reached at ESPNsider@aol.com.