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Michael Waltrip prepares for final Daytona start, last career race

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A NASCAR Cup career of 32 years, 784 races, four wins – including two triumphs in the Daytona 500 (2001, 2003) – plus 41 top-five and 132 top-10 finishes will come to an end in Sunday’s 59th edition of the Daytona 500.

Veteran driver Michael Waltrip will not only drive in his 30th and last Daytona 500, it will also be the final race of his career.

“I just thought it was a cool place to run my last race,” Waltrip said Wednesday during Daytona 500 Media Day at Daytona International Speedway. “I’ve been thinking about calling it a day over the last couple years, and this just seemed like the perfect time to do it.

“I’m looking forward to my opportunity to go out there and compete one last time and then sort of slow down I guess.”

Piloting the No. 15, with backing from long-time sponsors Toyota and Aaron’s and driving a car for Premium Motorsports, Waltrip comes back to Daytona one last time for some unfinished business.

“When we ran last year’s Daytona 500, it didn’t go well,” Waltrip said. “We didn’t run good and I guess we got into a little bit of a fender bender and messed up the car and I finished 30th – and I just didn’t want to quit like that.

“I went to Talladega and we got a 12th place finish and I ran up front a little bit and then I decided we would just try to have one more competitive run down here this year. You’ve got to quit sometime.”

Waltrip, followed by Dale Earnhardt Jr., wins the 2001 Daytona 500.
Waltrip, followed by Dale Earnhardt Jr., wins the 2001 Daytona 500.

Waltrip will have a number of family members, including both of his daughters, and friends on-hand to share his final race with, as well.

“Obviously it’ll be different because we know that’ll be my last race,” Waltrip said. “I don’t know how it’ll affect me. I’m looking forward to it though. I’m thankful that I get to drive – that’s something that I’ve really liked doing and people wonder why I would race more – but I drove a car here in 1986 and I have that car in my shop in North Carolina and I get to drive the technology of a 2017 NASCAR Cup car.

“It’s crazy how different they are and I just like experiencing that and feeling that and seeing what the guys are up to on the track and being a part of a team and I’m a part of a team with the TV with FOX. I’ve got great teammates there and it’s just fun to experience what I did for so long one more time.”

Making his first appearance in a NASCAR race at the age of 22 (1988), Waltrip retires at the age of 53.

In addition to his 784 Cup starts, if you add his 279 starts (11 wins) in the Xfinity Series and nine starts (one win) in the Camping World Truck Series, Waltrip will end his career with 1,072 combined starts in all three of NASCAR’s pro series.

“You know, I try not to get reflective or nostalgic because it just – it’s too emotional,” Waltrip said. “Mostly I just think about getting to race the car. I have faced a range of emotion that humans probably aren’t designed to face and in all happened within 10 seconds, so that’s hard to think about and it’s hard to figure out, but I love Daytona. I’ve been coming here since I was a kid, so every time we talk about coming to Daytona I get a big smile on my face, which is crazy, but that’s racing I guess.”

Michael has long raced in the shadow of older brother, NASCAR Hall of Famer Darrell Waltrip.

“Within the Waltrip family, I never was searching for identity, you know?” Michael Waltrip said. “I’m Margaret and Leroy’s little boy and my brother is Darrell.

“It certainly created my identity in the sport and it made my name relevant when it came to milestones or major accomplishments and so I’m thankful for that because I ran so many races before I finally won one that it was kind of getting to be a bummer. You know, when we close the books on this, it’ll say 11 XFINITY wins and one Camping World truck win, and it’ll definitely say four Monster Energy NASCAR Cup wins. Maybe it’ll say five, but I qualified 35th, so unless our strategy is we’ve got them right where we want them, they don’t even know we’re here, then we might be in a little bit of trouble on this one, but I’m looking forward to trying.”

While Waltrip has spent his career with primarily a fun-loving, effervescent personality, there’s one day he’ll never forget for two diametrically opposite reasons: Feb. 18, 2001. It was the day Waltrip won his first Daytona 500, and also the day his good friend and team owner Dale Earnhardt was killed in a last-lap crash while protecting Waltrip’s route to victory and Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s runner-up finish.

“It’s just what I live with,” Waltrip said. “I wouldn’t call it haunting. It’s just my life. I accepted it and I think I said it very well the days after that race. I think we have a number of days when we’re born that we’re going to live. Everybody has that number and that was Dale’s day, and me winning was the perfect person to win because I just wanted to give him the credit.

“I still honor him by giving him the credit and I will say also as I get older, as you think about your day coming up, it’s a pretty good day when you’re watching your two cars drive off to win the Daytona 500 and then you’re in heaven right after that. Obviously, I wish I could have got a hug from him and everything had have turned out different, but that’s just not the way it was meant to be.”

As each hour and day clicks off until Sunday, Waltrip will continue a long run of reflecting on his career, knowing this will be the end of the road once the checkered flag drops after the 500.

“You know, I’ve had a lot of time for reflection and I’ve been reflecting for a few years about this and what it – when it would come and what it would mean. You know, I quite honestly thought about just running my last race and not telling anyone, just say thank you all after it was over with.”

Now there’s just one thing left to do: finish his last race – and his career – strong.

“Well, I qualified 35th, so that’s not good,” Waltrip said. “I think I qualified about there at Talladega in April last year and I finished 12th, so if I can figure out a way to get to the front, run up front and finish in the top 10, I would walk away proud.”

Waltrip already has and will continue to receive a great deal of congratulations from his fellow drivers for the milestone 30th appearance in the “Great American Race.”

“It’s an amazing accomplishment,” Joey Logano said. “You think 30 500’s, that’s crazy. Where am I at? Nine? Ten maybe? I’ve got a long ways to go.”

Waltrip plans to enjoy his final 500 and final race as much as possible, knowing there won’t be any more in the future.

When asked how he’d like to be remembered for his racing career, Waltrip remarked, “Just a fun guy, friendly guy, nice to old people and kids – even nice to the media.”

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NASCAR America: Short tracks are Clint Bowyer’s favorites

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It was a question that needed to be asked, although the answer was not a surprise to anyone. What is Clint Bowyer’s favorite type of track?

“Short tracks are obviously my favorite,” Bowyer answered. “I think they’re probably everybody’s favorite. That’s what we grew up doing. That’s probably where we feel most comfortable.”

“I love back-to-back short track races because the drivers don’t have time to forget about who they’re mad at,” Steve Letarte interjected.

But Bowyer’s love of short tracks is not limited to Martinsville, where he snapped his long winless streak earlier this year. He is even more excited about coming to Richmond Raceway this week.

“I feel like Richmond is the perfect-sized race track.”

Bowyer went one step further, suggesting there is a way to add more tracks like Richmond to the schedule.

“I feel like, some of these mile-and-a-half tracks, we need to just use as parking lots and build Richmond in the infield,” Bowyer said.

For more of what Bowyer and Dale Earnhardt Jr. had to say about short track racing, watch the video above.

NASCAR America: Clint Bowyer’s parties are legendary

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Clint Bowyer parties are not only legendary, they have the same effect as a black hole on unsuspecting passersby, as Steve Letarte found out in Wednesday’s edition of NASCAR America.

“The cab driver comes up, goes inside, decides he is going to clock out – stays at the party,” Bowyer explained. “(The fare) is in the car waiting on him. He’s still inside partying. So somebody (else) got in the cab and made several laps on the go-kart track that night.”

It was eventually returned – muddied and with ungrateful patrons.

The cab driver is not the only person to get sucked into the vortex of a Bowyer party. Pizza delivery men, famous singers, and countless others have made this mistake of wandering too close.

“I’ve known Clint a long time, so none of this is shocking to me,” Letarte said as he correctly answered every bizarre question aimed at him.

For more of what has happened at one of Bowyer’s parties, watch the video above.

NASCAR America at 5:30 p.m. ET: Clint Bowyer joins Dale Jr. at the Big Oak Table

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Today’s episode of NASCAR America airs from 5:30-6:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is joined at the Big Oak table by Clint Bowyer and Steve Letarte. Krista Voda hosts.

On today’s edition of Wednesdays with Dale Jr.

• Clint Bowyer, a few weeks removed from his victory at Martinsville, joins Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Steve Letarte at the Big Oak Table to discuss the season, short track racing, the move to Stewart-Haas Racing last year and snapping his 190-race winless streak.
• Have a question for Dale Earnhardt Jr. or Clint Bowyer? Hit us up on Twitter using #WednesDale to get your question answered on air.
• Bowyer’s Martinsville victory celebration included some Moonshine & Fire. We’ll put his personal party knowledge to the test with this week’s game “Did This Really Happen at a Clint Bowyer Party?”

If you can’t catch today’s show on TV, watch it online at http:/nascarstream.nbcsports.com. If you plan to stream the show on your laptop or portable device, be sure to have your username and password from your cable/satellite/telco provider handy so your subscription can be verified.

Once you enter that information, you’ll have access to the stream.

Click here at 5:30 p.m. ET to watch live via the stream.

Bump & Run: Who will be next to challenge Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick?

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Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch have combined to win five of the first eight races of the season. Who is most likely to break up their dominance?

Nate Ryan: Any of the Penske drivers. That team seems to be next in class behind Stewart-Haas Racing and Joe Gibbs Racing.

Dustin Long: Ryan Blaney. Has shown a good bit of speed lately and seems to be close to scoring a win or two in the near future.

Daniel McFadin: Kyle Larson is poised to wreak havoc on the field if he can put together complete races without any miscues, like his spin in Bristol. He’s the defending Richmond winner, so it’ll be interesting to see if he can carry his momentum there.

Dan Beaver: If it’s possible to overlook the defending champion, that is what seems to be happening with Martin Truex Jr. With five wins and 14 top fives in his last 18 races, he needs to forget about his bad luck in the last two races and concentrate on all the things the team has been doing right.

Parker KligermanWhen I look at the current landscape, I feel the drivers that can break their stranglehold will either be driving a JGR Toyota or Team Penske Ford. 

Ryan Blaney (30-race winless drought), Jimmie Johnson (31), Joey Logano (35), Ryan Newman (40 races) and Kurt Busch (43) are in droughts. Who is the first among this group to return to Victory Lane?

Nate Ryan: Logano, possibly as early as Saturday. Blaney would be 1A as it’s only a matter of time for Team Penske.

Dustin Long: Ryan Blaney. He’s been strong lately, finishing eighth at Auto Club, third at Martinsville and fifth at Texas before crashing out of the Bristol race while in the lead. His time is coming. 

Daniel McFadin: I think it comes down to either Logano or Blaney with Logano likely to win at Richmond or Talladega. He’s finished in the top two in the last two Richmond races and he’s one of the best plate racers of this generation

Dan Beaver: As consistently strong as he has run, it is difficult to believe Logano has not already won. Along with Kyle Busch, he is the only driver with seven top-10s in the first eight races. Five of these were sixth-place finishes or better. Returning to the site of his last win, Logano could break through this week – and this time it will not be encumbered.

Parker Kligerman: I believe Ryan Blaney will win first. He is showing some serious speed and seems to be in great form. I feel that crew chief Jeremy Bullins and Ryan will want to start to assert themselves inside Team Penske as the title contender I feel they will be this year. 

After the perceived success of PJ1 before the resumption of Monday’s race, should NASCAR consider doing mid-race treatments with a traction compound to tracks?

Nate Ryan: Yes. While it’s worth pondering whether it might be unfairly tampering with the competition to reapply traction compound during a race, the circumstances of a postponement should allow it, and the ends certainly justified the means in Bristol’s case.

Dustin Long: NASCAR should do what is necessary to provide the best type of racing for the fans. 

Daniel McFadin: It’s a toss-up for me, but I think I’d rather they didn’t. It’s more interesting to have teams have to account for the loss of a racing element over time, just like they do with tires. That happened in Bristol and the race was great from beginning to end. Also, applying it mid-race just makes for longer races.

Dan Beaver: If NASCAR can find a way to substantially improve the action, they should do whatever is necessary. Many dirt tracks around the country take time to water the surface before the A-Mains to develop a second groove. NASCAR still has some lessons that can be learned from the grass roots.

Parker Kligerman: Why not? I feel until we find a way to stop hearing the words “loss of downforce” from following other cars, NASCAR should continue to look at all available tools to add in variables that can cause uncertainty for the teams and drivers and create changes in track state like we saw at Bristol to cause the most dynamic races possible.