Michael Waltrip loves Bristol Motor Speedway. It's where he proposed to his wife in Victory Lane. And it's where he now looks ahead anxiously, sorely needing help from the tiny terror to get his season on track.
After a 14th-place season finish in 2002, Waltrip ran among the top 10 most of last season before a late streak of bad finishes dropped him to 15th.
Coming so close to his first career top 10 Cup finish but failing, Waltrip was frustrated. He entered this season hellbent on lighting up every track on the circuit.
"I'm going to run the season like I'm the favorite and like we're going to do the job," Waltrip said. "It made me mad with the way we performed at the end of 2003. Nobody out-performed us, physically, at the end of the season. We just had everything go wrong."
But here he is, with five races run and 21 left to go before the 10-race dash for the title commences, and Waltrip has yet to finish in the top 20.
Even the Daytona 500, which he has won twice, was a disappointment as he crashed out and finished 38th. He went onto Rockingham knowing he needed a strong run to boost his team's morale and help put a disappointing day at the beach in the rear-view.
He qualified 33rd. He finished 33rd. A 37th-, 23rd- and 35th-place finish later, he comes to Bristol hoping this half-mile, high-banked bullring can bring him joy once more. He starts Sunday's race eighth.
"Sometimes stuff happens in life that's craziness," said Waltrip, who's toiling in 37th overall. "We've had out share of bad luck. But there isn't anything we can do about that."
Nothing but move on and hope for better. But normally drivers don't feel comfortable heading into Bristol needing to shake a streak of bad luck. This is a track where cars are constantly dodging slower cars, accidents and plenty of drama Waltrip might indeed call "craziness."
Waltrip himself was involved in an accident the last time the Cuppers hit Bristol. He knows how fickle the track is, and how easily one can get caught in someone else's mess.
He starts Sunday confident nonetheless that he'll have a smooth ride.
"You have to," he said. "You can't be worried about what's going to go wrong that's out of your control. I can work on whatever's in my control and whatever's in (my team's) control. That's all."
With 21 races to go, there's no reason to believe Waltrip can't cover the 315 points separating him from the top 10. But he knows as well as anybody that the margin for error has gone from slim to nearly nill if the No. 15 is going to race for the championship.
"We'll be ready," he said. "The car's going to be ready. From there, we'll just have to see."
Rupen Fofaria is a freelance writer living in Chicago. He can be reached at email@example.com.