Waltrip can come out of hiding

Updated: May 31, 2004, 1:46 AM ET
By Jerry Bonkowski | Special to ESPN.com

Michael Waltrip
Waltrip
CONCORD, N.C. -- Like old friends who haven't seen each other in several years, Jamie McMurray came up to Michael Waltrip before Sunday's Coca-Cola 600 and began reminiscing.

"Jamie and I were talking today before the race and he said, 'Dude, I never see you any more,' " Waltrip said. "And I said, 'Well, when I'm 30th in the points, I try to hide from everybody.' "

Though he's struggled this season, Waltrip doesn't have to hide anymore after his impressive second-place finish in the 600. Not only was it Waltrip's best finish of the season, it gave the No. 15 Chevrolet team a huge boost of confidence -- not to mention allowing Waltrip to jump in the standings from 30th to 24th.

"I just don't think there are a lot of people in this world who can run second in a NASCAR Nextel Cup race," Waltrip said. "I know I have the talent and the ability to do the job. (Sunday night's finish) just reaffirms that. It's so easy for me to get down on myself. It's just my personality. But it's nice to be reaffirmed. & Maybe I can raise my head up and look around some this week."

Waltrip's season has been in sharp contrast to that of teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr., who rallied late in the race to finish sixth. While Junior has been atop the Nextel Cup for the last month and a half, his teammate hadn't been able to get any higher than 30th before the 600.

It's pretty easy to understand why, considering five of Waltrip's first 11 finishes this season were 32nd or worse. Sure, he had a couple of 10th-place finishes before coming to Lowe's Motor Speedway for Sunday's grueling 400-lap event, but there's no question that Waltrip was not getting the kind of finishes he and DEI are used to, or that others have come to expect from such a high-powered, high-dollar and high-expectations team.

"We had a good team last year, but then we started this year and we couldn't find our rear ends," Waltrip said.

That's why Waltrip, crew chief Richard "Slugger" Labbe and the rest of the team worked so diligently in the last few weeks to have a good showing at DEI's home track.

"Slugger and the boys did a lot of wind tunnel work and did a great job tonight," Waltrip said. "The crew stuck with me, we kept working, we changed the downforce and made it more like the car I had last year, and there we were."

Even though Jimmie Johnson was awarded the victory under caution, the result of Bobby Labonte's last-lap crash, it's unlikely Waltrip could have caught him. Johnson and his No. 48 Chevrolet were just too powerful to deal with, evidenced by the fact Johnson led 334 of the race's 400 laps.

"Nobody, it seemed, was going to beat Jimmie," Waltrip said. "He was a lot better than we were."

But then, other than Johnson, nobody else wound up beating Waltrip, either.

"We were confident coming here," Waltrip said. "It's just nice to get results. We noticed after Richmond that we were only 100 points out of the top-20. When you see realistic positions in the points to be made up, it kind of pumps you up. & We wanted to capitalize on a little momentum we had going here."

And capitalize is exactly what Waltrip, Labbe and the rest of the boys did.

"We had a good race," Waltrip said. "We stayed in the top-five right from the start. I knew I had a good car. We were able to pass a bunch of guys and get up there and stay there. It didn't seem like anybody was going to beat Jimmie and it put us in a position to get the best finish we possibly could."

While Waltrip and his team obviously dug themselves a pretty deep hole both performance- and standings-wise, they wrapped up the first third of the season on a high note, one that Waltrip hopes will provide a foundation for greater things in the next 24 races.

Maybe next Sunday at Dover (Del.), McMurray will again come up to Waltrip before the race, and say, "Dude, it's good to see you again."

It could happen, because it's not likely Waltrip's going to be in hiding this week.

Jerry Bonkowski covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Motorsportwriter@MSN.com.

Jerry Bonkowski | email

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Award-winning sportswriting veteran Jerry Bonkowski returns to ESPN, having previously served as NASCAR columnist/writer for ESPN.com from 2001 to 2004. A lifelong Chicago native, Jerry spent 15 years with USA Today, where he covered all sports -- with heavy emphasis on Chicago-area teams -- and the past 4½ years as National NASCAR Columnist with Yahoo! Sports.

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