Daytona has always had this magical aura with stories surrounding the Daytona 500 that everybody loves to tell over and over. As we near closer to the Daytona 500, here is a look back through some of the highlighted moments in Daytona 500 history.
Waltrip’s journey of Daytona goes back to the 2001 Daytona 500, which was his first start with Dale Earnhardt Incorporated. Waltrip had been racing in the Sprint Cup Series since 1985 for various teams, though had yet to find himself in victory lane. He had finished in the top 10, the top five and even finished top 10 in points, though never found himself in victory lane. The 2001 season was set to mark a change of this via Waltrip being given a chance to drive a third car for Dale Earnhardt Incorporated by his best friend Dale Earnhardt.
The entire 2001 Daytona 500 played out as a dream to Waltrip (of course till the last lap crash) as he was up front throughout the race, in contention ready to take the win. When it came to the final lap, there he led the race, followed by his teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr., set to win and complete the dream. With his brother Darrell Waltrip’s voice calling the final lap, excited spewed over the top as DW called in it dramatic fashion as Michael finally broke his 467 race winless streak.
Of course, the entire mood of the day changed to the complete opposite as on the final lap, Waltrip’s car owner Dale Earnhardt crashed in turn three and died. The entire excitement that Waltrip felt in victory lane disappeared as now the NASCAR Nation went into mourning.
Though, with the Daytona’s Magical means, the story can never end there. When it came to NASCAR’s return to Daytona in July of 2001, everybody knew it’d be an emotional time via February’s events. Instead of tears of sadness, it became tears of joys as Dale Earnhardt Jr. took the win with Waltrip second. The outpouring of emotions afterwards on Daytona’s infield grass allowed Waltrip to finally be able to celebrate and pull some weight off the shoulders via another win at Daytona for the team.
However, Waltrip wasn’t done there. He wanted his own win at Daytona to celebrate as his own. That came in 2003 when Waltrip won the Daytona 500 for a second time, able to celebrate under the rain drops that had fallen to call the race early. Finally, Waltrip got to experience his own Daytona celebration without any distractors.
Waltrip ran for Dale Earnhardt Incorporated from 2001 to 2005, before being release due to a string of events that led to poor results. In his time with Dale Earnhardt Incorporated, Waltrip got two other wins besides his Daytona 500 victories – 2002 Summer Daytona July race and 2003 Fall Talladega race. Waltrip spent the 2006 season at Bill Davis Racing, where he found his confidence sink lower in his ability of a driver with more poor finishes.
“Confidence is more important in this sport than people realize,” Waltrip wrote in NASCAR Illustrated’s February issue. “I lost mine when I moved to Bill Davis Racing in 2006 after a great year at Dale Earnhardt Inc. in 2005. We didn’t run well right from the start. It beat me down to the point where it basically ended my career.”
Waltrip went and raced for himself for a few years, before hanging up the helmet and taking on the ownership role. Waltrip also has found himself in a position that works better for a man of his personality with working in the booth during the Camping World Truck Series races with Rick Allen and Phil Parsons.
For the 2011 Daytona 500, Waltrip will try to add another chapter to his Daytona story as he runs a paint scheme paying tribute to Dale Earnhardt.
“This is a very special day,” Waltrip said during the media tour. “Ten years ago I won the 500 in my first race with NAPA and we know February 18, 2001 is a day that NASCAR fans will never forget. What looked to be a storybook ending turned to tragedy seconds later. To mark the 10th anniversary of that race and my 25th consecutive 500 will be quite emotional for me and fans alike.”
Also to go with the 10th anniversary, Waltrip has released a book that tells the events that happened on February 18th and other challenges in his life in his perspective in his new book In the Blink of an Eye, which went on sale Feb. 1st.
“I’ve spent much of last year writing the book,” Waltrip said. “It forced me to put into words a lot of emotions from that weekend and how we and the whole NASCAR world dealt with the loss of Dale. When I got my first copy the other day I told people that I felt like I had given birth. The book has become a part of me and I know fans are going to love it.”
The color will be black and blue, following along the lines of the yellow and blue paint scheme that Waltrip drove for Dale Earnhardt Incorporated.
“Hard to believe 10 years have passed since that fateful day in 2001 when we celebrated Michael’s Daytona 500 win and unfortunately mourned the loss of our friend, Dale Earnhardt,” Bob Susor, NAPA President, said. “We could not think of a better way to honor our friend Dale as well as mark this milestone in Michael’s career than to bring the NAPA No. 15 back to the Daytona 500 with a special paint scheme. We are hopeful fans, family and friends enjoy the tribute to both Michael and Dale.”
Regardless of how the 2011 chapter plays out, Waltrip’s story will always remain in the Daytona history books forever and touches the magical aura of Daytona.