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 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.”