DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Michael Waltrip remembers what happened one year ago Sunday.
“We had a pretty decent day in Saturday’s practice and we were poised to go try to make our first Daytona 500,” Waltrip said. “I took a shower and I even colored my hair. I shaved. I looked as good as I could.”
Then, the phone rang.
And things started going down the drain.
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During inspection before Daytona 500 qualifying, NASCAR officials had found “a foreign substance” in the engine of the No. 55 Toyota.
“I said, ‘There must be a mistake, there must be a reason,’” Waltrip said.
Waltrip’s car was impounded. Two key members of his race team were ejected from the Cup garage. NASCAR asked Toyota what it knew about a scandal that overshadowed everything else about the manufacturer’s first race in NASCAR’s top series.
“I don’t know if you can ever really prepare for something like that,” said Jim Aust, president and chief executive officer of Toyota Racing Development. “You deal with it like you would in a trauma center at a hospital.”
Waltrip rebounded dramatically. Thursday morning he held an emotional news conference denying knowledge of what had been done to his primary car. Then, he went out and put a car he’d never driven into the 500 through his 150-mile qualifying race.
But it would be more than three months before Waltrip would race again. He failed to qualify in the next 11 races.
“That was the lowest point,” he said. “Just week after week of trying and failing, trying and failing, and seeing my other cars running poorly.”
Waltrip saw the peril clearly. He had started a brand-new Cup operation and was trying to field three teams with a manufacturer also new to the sport. The team’s shop wasn’t finished – at one point as crews tried to get cars ready for Daytona a piece of machinery was literally stuck in the mud where concrete floors hadn’t yet been poured.
“It wasn’t two or three races in the season that I raised my hand and told the folks at Toyota we weren’t supported properly,” Waltrip said.
“I didn’t like our direction. We had three one-car teams, not one three-car team. That was our fault. We had problems at Michael Waltrip Racing.”
By April, Waltrip told his wife, Buffy, that they soon would be broke unless things changed. Publicly, though, Waltrip said everything was going along nicely.
“As the owner and the leader, I didn’t allow myself to portray that,” Waltrip said. “They would tell me that we were probably going to go out of business on a given day. I would say, ‘No, it will work and we’ll figure something out between now and then.’ There were times when I didn’t know for sure I believed that. But I never gave up.”
Today, one year after it all seemed to come falling in on him, Waltrip is back in Daytona to try to qualify for a race that he has won twice.
After not being allowed to qualify last year, it is entirely possible he could win the pole Sunday. Waltrip won the pole at Talladega last fall when the car of tomorrow was used on a restrictor-plate track for the first time. Waltrip also had the second-fastest lap in Saturday afternoon’s final practice, behind only Patrick Carpentier.
Many things happened to help Waltrip’s team survive last season’s storm.
Toyota and the team redefined themselves and their relationship. Robert Kauffman invested some of his fortune and became a co-owner of Michael Waltrip Racing, infusing financial resources into the operation. Dr. Eric Warren was hired as technical director, helping the team get its engineering ducks in a row.
But it’s impossible to overlook Waltrip’s role in keeping the ship from completely sinking.
“It’s the survivor story of the decade,” Lowe’s Motor Speedway president H.A. “Humpy” Wheeler said.
“He went through more than anymore than I’ve ever known who didn’t get hurt in a race car. ...If he hadn’t have been so personable and, to a great extent, humble, he would have never survived maybe not even halfway through the season. It was as tough as you can get.”
Aust said Waltrip has been “a great ambassador” for Toyota. “He’s friendly, open and a very courteous type of guy,” Aust said. “He’s willing to do whatever you need as a sponsor. Those are attributes you look for from everybody you try to do business with.”
Along with Toyota, two of Waltrip’s team sponsors also stayed. NAPA is still on Waltrip’s No. 55, and UPS remains on the No. 44 Toyotas in which Dale Jarrett will drive the season’s first five races before retiring. David Reutimann will start the year in the No. 00, then move into the No. 44 UPS car after Jarrett leaves.
Michael McDowell will take over in No. 00 after that, but as of now that car does not have a sponsor.
“We didn’t make races, we didn’t run well and we weren’t who we set ourselves up to be,” Waltrip said.
“I have always been a fan of undersell and overdeliver. ...Last year, because of my confidence in Toyota and a lot of my ignorance, I oversold and underdelivered. We need to change that paradigm.”
As difficult as the first season was, however, Waltrip said getting a new start in 2008 doesn’t mean he’s putting the past completely behind him.
“The 2007 season is right here in my pocket,” he said. “We would not be as prepared as I think we are for 2008 if not for what happened last year. I want that to be a part of this team as we move forward.”