Waltrip says he nearly withdrew from embarrassment

Updated: February 15, 2007, 5:42 PM ET
By David Newton | ESPN.com

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Michael Waltrip came face to face with a Nextel Cup official as he moved through the sea of television cameras and reporters on pit road following Thursday's first 150-mile qualifying race at Daytona International Speedway.

"It's all about you, Michael," the official said with a smile.

Michael Waltrip
AP Photo/John RaouxMichael Waltrip managed to qualify for the Daytona 500 this season, but it was hard for him to muster a smile after he did.
The last three days certainly have been.

Waltrip had his car confiscated on Sunday when inspectors discovered an unspecified substance in his engine, had his crew chief and competition director suspended indefinitely on Wednesday as part of NASCAR's hefty penalty and spun out good friend Dale Earnhardt Jr. 16 laps into his qualifying race.

And, oh, he qualified all three of his Toyotas for the Daytona 500.

On a day when he considered sitting out because of the embarrassment caused by the investigation, when he almost came to tears in a pre-race press conference, the two-time Daytona 500 champion finally had something good happen.

"I'm probably the most depressing guy you'll ever see make the Daytona 500," said Waltrip, who finished eighth to make it into Sunday's 43-car field.

Were it not for the urging of his wife, manufacturer, sponsor and NASCAR president Mike Helton, Waltrip probably would have sat out the race and spent the rest of the week as the owner of his other two Toyota teams.

He felt by racing there would be a cloud over anything he accomplished and he would damage the integrity of the sport even further.

"I said yesterday I want to go home and they said, 'You've got to stay and race. That's what you do,' " Waltrip said. "Thank God! I'm sad, but happy at the same time. Daytona does that to you."

Waltrip has experienced some of his best and worst moments at Daytona. His first 500 win was marred by the death of then-owner Dale Earnhardt on the last lap, and he didn't get to really celebrate until he won it again a few years later.

There was no celebrating on Thursday, either.

Waltrip, despite getting more attention than race winner Tony Stewart, showed no joy as he exited his car. His first smile didn't come until teammate Dale Jarrett fought through the crowd to embrace him.

His next came about 20 minutes later when he was embraced by Lee White and Jim Aust, the top two officers in Toyota Racing Development.

"I'm disappointed that we had all the attention paid to us and attention supposed to be for people who do wonderful things," Waltrip said graciously. "We got it for the wrong reasons.

"I never needed any cheating. I deeply regret it happened, but it did. What are you going to do? I had the choice to go home or stay. I'm glad I stayed. People know that I can do this without cheating pretty good."

White watched as Waltrip addressed the media in the infield media center. He laughed as the owner of Michael Waltrip Racing said getting three cars -- Waltrip, Jarrett and David Reutimann -- into the 500 would help pay the fines.

"It doesn't change some of our concerns of ethical issues," said White, the senior vice president for Toyota Racing Development. "It certainly lightens the sky."

There are still stormy skies ahead, though. MWR has launched an internal investigation to find out who was responsible for putting an unspecified substance into his fuel system to create a competitive advantage before Sunday's qualifying.

Crew chief David Hyder and competition director Bobby Kennedy were escorted out of the speedway on Wednesday and suspended indefinitely.

Hyder also was fined $100,000 and a source close to the situation said Hyder would be fired.

Waltrip, who was penalized 100 championship points, said he did not plan to fire anybody until the investigation is complete, but sources close to the situation said it was inevitable.

Ty Norris, the general manager at MWR, declined to comment when asked if anybody had been fired.

"We're going to find out who did it and why they did it," he said. "There will be vindication for Michael, myself and the entire organization."

Norris said the best word to describe the way he and Waltrip feel is betrayal and that they've both shed tears over it the past few days.

"You can't grasp the hurt," he said.

Norris said it was "idiotic" for anybody at MWR to try to skirt the rules, saying he and Waltrip have preached since Day One that cheating will not be allowed.

"Period," he said. "End of story."

Toyota officials told ESPN.com that Waltrip's team used two of three strikes for every Toyota team and that a letter would be sent to all informing them the next team that blatantly violates the rules can expect to lose manufacturer support.

They added that Waltrip's team violated four areas of Toyota's code of ethics.

"I'm surprised I didn't use all three of them," Waltrip said of the strikes. "It's just that wrong. I'm very disappointed and very sad.

"This is a time to celebrate and be proud of what we accomplished. And now it's turned the other way. I just hope people are able to separate Michael Waltrip Racing from Toyota in this instance."

Bill Davis of Toyota's Bill Davis Racing has no problem with such strict guidelines.

"They can save the stamp with me," he said of the letter. "This sport is way above [cheating]. But I understand their concern. It's not at all the way they want to come into the sport."

Waltrip, just as NASCAR did on Wednesday, made it clear this was a team issue and not a Toyota issue. He apologized repeatedly for embarrassment caused to the foreign manufacturer making its debut at Daytona and to his primary sponsor, NAPA.

"What took place was the act of an individual or individuals," Waltrip said. "It's not a reflection of our team or sponsors or manufacturer. I hope people understand this is my fault. I hired the people."

Norris said the organization is searching credit card records as a part of the investigation, but said the process is difficult because NASCAR hasn't identified the substance.

NASCAR has said only that the substance was odorless and Vaseline-like and didn't belong in the engine.

Waltrip wasn't concerned with the name of the substance or the 100-point penalty that will make it tough for him to climb into the top 35 in owner's points guaranteed a spot in the field each week.

"I'm much more concerned about our credibility and perception and how people think of Michael Waltrip Racing than I am those points," he said. "If I perform well I can get those points back. So I haven't even thought about the points."

Norris said the penalty was "completely fair." He added that NAPA has been completely supportive.

"They called and said they've known us since 1996 and we know your character and we're standing behind you," Norris said. "That was very nice to hear."

Waltrip recalled how proud he was to drive into the speedway last week with three haulers full of shiny new cars with Toyota on the side.

"I promise I've never been any prouder in my life," he said. "It was a wonderful feeling to know how far we've come in a short period of time and the qualify of individuals and the drivers that had been put together.

"I remember laying down to go to sleep Saturday night before qualifying and I said to myself, 'Live this moment, Mike. Just live this dream. Enjoy it while it's here.' "

Waltrip also recalled coming to Daytona as a 12-year-old, hanging on the fence and dreaming of being a driver.

He then recalled his 9-year-old daughter asking his wife, Buffy, on Monday night "why daddy cheated." He told reporters to ask anything they wanted because "you can't hurt me any worse than I am right now."

"It's really hard for me to be happy about anything right now," Waltrip said. "I'm sort of numb. I won the Daytona 500. I won these races twice. I knew I didn't need anything cheating on my part. I don't need it. I can go fast without it. I think we proved that today."

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

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