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Wood Brothers’ lifeline started with a phone call: ‘I’m going to fix that’

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DOVER, Delaware — Shortly after the Coca-Cola 600 ran without the Wood Brothers for the only time in the event’s history, co-owner Eddie Wood’s cell phone rang.

On the other end was Edsel Ford II, great-grandson of Henry Ford, founder of Ford Motor Company, a longtime supporter of the Wood Brothers.

Edsel Ford called for other reasons, but the conversation turned to the team’s struggles. Although it was late May, the 2008 season already had been difficult for the team.

The Wood Brothers failed to qualify for the Daytona 500, marking the first time since 1962 the family didn’t have a car in NASCAR’s most prestigious race.

The team failed to make the races at Las Vegas, Atlanta and Bristol in consecutive weekends. The Woods had the most wins among any team in NASCAR history at Atlanta at that time. They also didn’t qualify at Richmond before failing to make the 43-car field at Charlotte.

All that hung over Wood when he answered his phone in the Pocono Raceway garage during a test two days after the 600.

“Why haven’t we talked lately?’’ Edsel Ford asked Wood.

“Mr. Ford, we’ve run so bad and I’m so ashamed,’’ Wood said. “I’m ashamed to call you.’’

“So you’re telling me my 21 is broke?’’

“Yes sir. It’s broken. Really bad.’’

“I’m going to fix that.’’

SURVIVORS

When Ryan Blaney held off 2014 series champion Kevin Harvick to win at Pocono in June, he gave the Wood Brothers their 99th career Cup victory and qualified them for the playoffs for the first time.

For as storied as Wood Brothers history is — nine NASCAR Hall of Famers have run at least one race for the team — the organization has only one championship. The team won the 1963 car owner’s title less than three weeks before President John F. Kennedy’s assassination.

Ryan Blaney. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Blaney enters Sunday’s race at Dover International Speedway in position to advance to the next round. That the Wood Brothers are competing for a championship is remarkable considering what they overcame to remain in a sport that left many contemporaries behind.

More than 30 teams that competed in the Daytona 500 at one time or another between 2006-16 have faded away. They ranged from powerhouses to low-budget endeavors put together on a hope and a prayer.

Those teams relegated to history include Dale Earnhardt Inc., Petty Enterprises, Yates Racing, Evernham Motorsports, Bill Davis Racing, Michael Waltrip Racing and Red Bull Racing. They combined for 10 Cup titles and 16 Daytona 500 victories.

While they are gone, the Wood Brothers remain.

LOYALTY

Edsel Ford II calls the No. 21 Wood Brothers car Ford’s “company car.’’

He’s not exaggerating. The Wood Brothers always have run Fords, starting with Glen Wood. He and a friend paid $50 for a 1938 Ford Coupe to race in 1950.

In Glen Wood’s first race, contact in his heat bent the rear-end housing. It didn’t seem major until afterward when they towed the car back to Stuart, Virginia. The axle broke. Gas spilled and ignited from the sparks as the car’s rear end scraped the ground. Flames shot from the back of the car and spread.

The fire eventually burned out and the damage was minimal to the engine. So a few weeks later, Glen Wood again was racing that car, beginning a legacy with Ford.

Leonard Wood and Glen Wood pose with their car at the NASCAR Hall of Fame on January 22, 2012. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images for NASCAR)

For as much loyalty as the Wood Brothers have shown Ford Motor Company, Edsel Ford II felt the same way with the team.

“We were dedicated to them, and they were dedicated to us,’’ Ford told NBC Sports.

Loyalty, though, doesn’t pay the bills and can’t always prop a team back up when it has fallen.

The Wood Brothers’ falloff was gradual, more like water dripping from a faucet instead of flowing.

Elliott Sadler led them to a 20th-place finish in the points in 2001, but the team’s performance yo-yoed through Sadler and Ricky Rudd before declining with a series of other drivers.

The organization expanded, adding a Truck team, but that didn’t prove effective. Decisions didn’t work out as hoped, and soon the Wood Brothers fell further behind the leading teams.

While they attempted to run every race in 2007, the Wood Brothers failed to qualify for two races. At Talladega, they were among nine teams that didn’t make the field. That included Red Bull Racing (AJ Allmendinger and Brian Vickers), Bill Davis Racing (Dave Blaney) and Michael Waltrip Racing (Michael Waltrip).

Then came the woes of 2008. The team failed to qualify for eight of 36 races.

“As far as racing goes, that’s about as bad a spot as you can be in, going to a race track and not being fast enough to qualify and race,’’ Eddie Wood said.

He and brother Len stayed at the track for the Daytona 500, Coca-Cola 600 and Brickyard 400 (they also would miss that race that year) without a car competing.

“That’s the hardest part,’’ Len said. “You have no hauler, nowhere to go, no car to show anybody, nowhere to sit down.’’

Said Eddie: “You have nowhere to be.’’

FAMILY

The day after Edsel Ford’s call to Eddie Wood, another call came. Eddie and Len were told to fly to Detroit that day to meet with a Ford executive. Four hours later, they were in the air, but there was a problem. Neither had proper clothes for an executive meeting since they had been at a race. So after landing, they went to a Dillard’s department store for proper clothes.

Their meeting was postponed a day, but when it was held, it began a process for the Wood Brothers to become more competitive.

Eddie and Len Wood at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on July 23, 2016. (Photo by Daniel Shirey/Getty Images)

“They’re such an important part of our family, they’re an important part of our sport, Ford Motorsports,’’ Edsel Ford II said. “To lose them would have been inconceivable to me.’’

More engineering help was added. Later, another idea emerged from Edsel Ford II.

Maybe the team should not run a full season beginning in 2009.

“Eddie and Len knew that the future was going to be there, now it was just a question of hanging on and how do we get there,’’ Ford said. “I think the three of us spent a lot of time strategizing, what does the long-term look like, so we’ll have to make some short-term sacrifices in order to get to the long-term. We all knew that some of these half-seasons were not what they wanted, certainly not what we wanted, but it was going to get us there.’’

But what races to skip? Len Wood examined the costs incurred at each track from hotel bills to tire bills and more. Eventually, the team decided it would be best to run the Daytona 500 and focus on tracks from 1.5 to 2.5 miles. That way they didn’t have to prepare cars for short tracks or road courses, saving costs there.

After having attempted to run every race from 1985-2008, the team ran 13 races in 2009 and 2010.

VICTORY

They met at a Steak ‘n Shake for lunch.

There sat the heirs to one of the most famous teams in NASCAR history and one of the sport’s most popular drivers. Eddie and Len Wood sat with Bill Elliott.

The Wood Brothers were aligned with Roush Fenway Racing. Through it, they acquired a couple of cars and a new crew chief when they parted ways with their crew chief late in the 2010 season. Soon after, Roush requested that Trevor Bayne drive for the Wood Brothers in the fall Texas race to be eligible for the 2011 Daytona 500. It was at that lunch the Woods told Elliott, their current driver, about the change of plans. Elliott said he’d help Bayne any way he could.

After the season, there was more talk about Bayne running for the team in 2011. He ended up in the No. 21 car for the Wood Brothers at Daytona.

Trevor Bayne celebrates after winning the 2011 Daytona 500. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Bayne’s Speedweeks did not go smoothly. A rookie, few would run with him in the tandem style of that period. Then his car was damaged in an accident on the last lap of his qualifying race. With help from Roush Fenway Racing, the team repaired the car instead of going to a backup.

The repairs were perfect. The race went beyond the scheduled 200 laps, and Bayne took the lead for the first time on Lap 203. He led the final six laps to win in just his second series start. Bayne’s victory provided one of the more memorable scenes that season when Richard Petty escorted Glen Wood to victory lane.

The feel-good moment didn’t turn into much more money. The team added a few more races in hopes of enticing sponsors to come on so it could run a full season. It didn’t happen. While the team ran 17 of 36 races that season, it would be five more seasons until there was the sponsorship and support to run a full season.

NIRVANA

Eddie and Len Wood won’t think about the possibility that in less than two months, the Wood Brothers could be champions. When you spend your life in the sport, it is dangerous to look too far ahead. Instead, focus on the what needs to be done and worry about what’s down the road when you come upon it.

Edsel Ford II can’t contain himself. For as much as he doesn’t want to look too far ahead, he smiles and his eyes widen at the thought of the Wood Brothers and Ryan Blaney winning the championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

“What does nirvana look like?’’ Ford asks.

Then he answers the question.

“I think to go to Las Vegas and be with them,’’ he said of where NASCAR celebrates its champion, “it would be pretty close to nirvana for me.’’

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NASCAR goes west on social media: It’s Vegas, baby, Vegas!

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It’s that time again, when for at least a few days every year, NASCAR teams utter the same refrain: Viva Las Vegas!

There’s so much to do:

* All the shows on the famous Strip and other areas.

* You’ll never go hungry with the dozens of buffets.

* And if you’re looking for a quick way to part you from your money, there’s also all the slot machines and table games 24/7/365.

* Oh yeah, and there’s also two NASCAR races this weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway: Saturday’s Boyd Gaming 300 Xfinity Series event, and Sunday’s Kobalt 400 NASCAR Cup race.

It’s also a time and place where NASCAR drivers, crew chiefs and team members love to take to social media to extol the virtues of what’s going on in town and what they’re doing during their mini-working vacation of sorts.

Check out some of the better tweets we’ve seen from Sin City – and remember, what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas:

 

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What drivers said after the 59th Daytona 500

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Kurt Busch won his first Daytona 500, while favorites such as Chase Elliott, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin and others either fell short or were involved in the multitude of wrecks that made up Sunday’s 59th edition of “The Great American Race.”

And as can be expected, with both the excitement of the win and the disappointment of early exits, drivers had lots to talk about after the race:

Kurt Busch (winner): “There is nothing predictable about this race anymore and the more years that have gone by that I didn’t win I kept trying to go back to patterns that I had seen in the past. My mirror fell off with 30 laps to go and I couldn’t even see out the back. And I thought that was an omen. Throw caution to the wind. The more unpredictability that keeps unfolding at the Daytona 500, I predicted it. It just got crazy and wild and I am so proud of all the drivers at the end. We put on a show for a full fuel run and nobody took each other out and it was one of the smartest chess games I have seen out there. All the hard work that Ford and SHR put into this — this Ford Fusion is in Daytona’s victory lane.”

Ryan Blaney (finished 2nd): “I tried to make a move with 10 to go and I didn’t go anywhere. I thought we were kind of stuck. Luckily we had the 22 (Joey Logano) with us. I kind of helped him and he kind of helped me. … I got to second behind the 41 (Kurt Busch) somehow and that kept us going the whole way. I laid back to the 47 (AJ Allmendinger) thinking I’d get a good run and I was sputtering and running out of gas on the backstretch. It was a solid race. … Not what we wanted but a pretty good run and start to the season.”

AJ Allmendinger (3rd): “I was kind of looking at the fuel pressure gauge, the window, the mirror; and the last 10 laps, knowing that we were pretty close, I was just trying to run in that pack and run quarter throttle and trying to hold my spot the best I could. I knew everybody was close and it might come down to who did run out of fuel. … More than anything else just to have a good start to this 2017 season, the effort is there. Our equipment is there. We’ve just got to put it together. Hopefully this is a great start.”

Aric Almirola (4th): “It was a wild day. I can’t believe how many cars were involved in wrecks here and there. We were able to get through quite a few of them and our car just didn’t quite have the speed we needed to make the big runs and complete the big passes, but all in all it was a good day for our Smithfield Ford Fusion. … We’ll take it and get ready for Atlanta.  The Daytona 500, you always want to come out of here with a good start to the season.”

Paul Menard (5th): “It’s a good finish. It was exciting. We were right in the middle of half of the crashes. Got a little bit of right rear damage early, but the guys fixed it. (Crew chief Matt Borland) made a really good call to short pit for some fuel so we didn’t have to take as much fuel at the end. We were on pretty old tires, and I couldn’t run the bottom very well. Those guys were coming on the bottom at the end. I was kind of tentative to get down there. Ran out of fuel out of turn two.  I just nursed it home. I am just really proud of my guys on my Menards Chevrolet. Looking forward to Atlanta.”

Joey Logano (6th): “I just couldn’t get anyone to go for it at the end. Everyone was so conservative and I don’t understand why. We kept trying to go to the bottom and make a run down there and no one would go with us. We had three cars that kind of wanted to do it, but it’s a matter of getting the right run and getting the right cars behind us and we didn’t have enough of them and couldn’t get up to the lead pack. I don’t know why everyone was so conservative today. … It was crazy to say the least. Right after the last segment it was like everyone turned up the wick a little bit and at the end it was like it burned out.”

Kasey Kahne (7th): “It was tough early being in the back. It took a while to get the track position. But once we got it, we had a great Farmers Insurance Chevrolet. I was just waiting on Kurt (Busch). We were just waiting and waiting and waiting. I kind of gave Kurt that last boost going into one, but then I ran out of gas and the field drove away. It’s disappointing we ran out like that. … I thought it was really good Daytona 500. Glad to be a part of it.”

Michael Waltrip (8th): “It’s going to be a great memory you know to have a top 10. I had so many times I was in the middle of a crash and just missed it. So, you do a good job and you get lucky both. At the end I just lost the draft and that is unfortunate because I was able to weave my way past people. I had a really, really good handling car. I’m thankful that I survived and I’m thankful for being able to run upfront and I’m happy about the finish. I’m ready for it to be my last one so it’s going to be a good one to remember it by.”

Matt DiBenedetto (9th): “That’s a heck of a way to start the year. Holy cow. We survived. We got in that one crash and we hit pretty hard. I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s gonna be a long day,’ but the guys did a great job patching it up. It still ran fine. I had good speed. The motor ran great all day, so it was cool. … I’m excited to be back racing and thankful to have a ride. … Being in the Daytona 500 in the first place is unbelievable, so I’m gonna say this one does feel really good just because it’s the Daytona 500 and it’s been my dream since I was five to even be in it, so to get a top-10 in it, I’m just checking off all these dreams come true.”

Trevor Bayne (10th): “What a day. The first-half was pretty calm. I was cruising in the back waiting for all the wrecks to happen and they didn’t. Then I got caught up with the 48;  I’m not sure if it was my fault. I feel bad if it was my fault. I’m spinning and trying to hang on to it, and did. A few laps later we were running in the middle again and somebody hit me in the right rear. It was just nuts. It was like a pinball for a few laps. But at the end of the day we had a good finish, a top 10 finish at Daytona. Overall, we had a really strong car all Speedweeks. This Ford was really fast.”

Brendan Gaughan (11th): “It seemed a little calmer than the Truck race or the Xfinity race. Those had a lot more carnage. But there was still a lot. It is just the nature of Daytona racing.  But it was fun. I enjoy racing here. I am grateful to Beard Motorsports folks for the opportunity in this Chevy with ECR power. I had a top-10 until about 10 feet before finish line. I wish I could have got that for them.”

Kyle Larson (12th): “I almost had a shot to win. I knew we would be close on fuel. They had told me to save as much as I could on the cautions and stuff.  When we went green I was the leader and was wide-open for a handful of laps there. Once I fell back and we got single file up top I was able to run three-quarter or half throttle somewhere around there to save as much fuel as I could just to try and get to the end.  We got to three to go or so and I knew I had to make my move soon to try and get to the win and was able to pass a couple of cars and Chase (Elliott) ran out of fuel and got a good run on the No. 78 (Martin Truex, Jr.) and got by him. I had my fingers crossed, but just came up half-a-lap short on fuel.”

Chase Elliott (14th): “It was a disappointing finish to a good day. Just one of those things you can’t do anything about. I’m happy with how the NAPA team performed, and we are going to learn from it. I’m proud of how hard everyone worked all week. We’re looking forward to getting back at it in Atlanta.”

Landon Cassill (16th): “It was a crazy race. The one wreck was okay and fair and square, and I was kind of in the middle of it all. We fixed the car real good, though. The car wasn’t that badly damaged. The second wreck I was clear of it and there was just one last straggler that hooked me and that was just too bad. It kind of killed the car enough to where we didn’t have speed and from that point we just kind of outlasted the field and got a 16th-place finish, which is okay.”

Austin Dillon (19th): “We had a good day. We put ourselves in good positions all day. We just have to get better. Do not have anything for the really fast cars, but we put ourselves in good positions and that is what happens. Ran out of fuel. Bummer. We will go to Atlanta.”

Kevin Harvick (22nd): “We just got some cars up there that didn’t need to be up there and wound up doing more than their car could do. … We had, I felt, the fastest car in the field and right in contention for both segments and then it’s all tore up and it came to an end.  What do you do? … I think that’s the fastest car I’ve ever had here, so it’s kind of disappointing.”

David Ragan (25th): “The bottom lane stalled a little bit and the 17 (Ricky Stenhouse Jr.) had a really good run, I don’t know if I got checked up a bit. He was coming hard and touched me. I got a little loose and tried to chase it and he just couldn’t get off me and ran out of room. It was unfortunate to be in that spot but we got lucky that we didn’t get damaged any more than we did. There were a lot of wrecks all day. You always second guess yourself on things and hard your race. … We had a good car. I’m glad we were able to work hard and get some spots there at the end.”

Brad Keselowski (27th): “We did the best we could and controlled everything we could control on our own today. … I thought the stages were good actually and added a nice little element to the race. I didn’t notice guys being any more aggressive than usual. There were a lot of accidents but I would have to see the replays to understand why. … The Fords did a really good job working together and establishing position which helped us avoid one wreck but we couldn’t avoid the 10 of them that there have been today. Our Miller Lite Ford Fusion was fast though, all the Fords were fast. Roush Yates brought some great power here to Daytona. It is exciting.”

Jamie McMurray (28th): “I went to get to the inside of the No. 24 (Chase Elliott) and I got to his left rear and got him turned a little. And then I don’t know who was behind me, but someone got into my left rear, and then I was kind of just along for the ride whenever that happens.”

Daniel Suarez (29th): “I just don’t feel like I did a really good job in the first part of the race. I made a lot of mistakes. I just wasn’t able to slow down enough to get into my (pit) box and then I made a couple mistakes there. We were able to overcome those mistakes and put ourselves back into the game. And actually I was so ready to race because I had been taking care of my car a lot, a lot. I was asking my team, possibly, it’s time to race? It’s time to race? I guess it was still too early.”

Ty Dillon (30th): “Just a bummer because I felt like I had a fast-enough car to get back up there and have a good finish and capitalize on a day that went sour early.  Unfortunately, it didn’t work out for us. … I don’t know what it is about this year, maybe it’s the segments, I don’t know.  It’s got everybody a little more amped up, but there are not a whole lot of cars finishing. I dodged all of them yesterday and ran out of gas in the end and didn’t dodge them all today. It’s just part of racing here at Daytona. That is why it is one of the toughest races to win.”

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (31st): “We were just running around the top and I just got hit in the left-rear. I’m not really sure what happened below us, but it was a bummer of a day. I thought we brought some really fast Fords down here and just hate that we didn’t really get a result to show for it. … Stage racing hasn’t contributed to any crashes. We finished every stage under green with no issues, so I would say stage racing was not the issue. A couple of them happened right after restarts.”

Clint Bowyer (32nd): “Man I hate the way it ended. No way around it. We got caught up with someone else’s mess. Just really upset right now. We’ve had a good week down here and we still have a lot of racing left in 2017, so I’m pumped about the year. We had a really fast Mobil 1 Ford today.”

Danica Patrick (33rd): “I don’t really know. I just know we were all three-wide and it looks like the 6 (Trevor Bayne) and 48 (Jimmie Johnson) had something happen. There was nowhere to go. They just kept coming and hitting me. … It was the funnest 500 I’ve ever had. Well, probably not 500, more like 300 or 250. It is a real shame. I feel like we could have been a contender at the end, for sure we could have been an influencer.”

Jimmie Johnson (34th): “That could have been avoided and it wasn’t called for. From the minute, I got off of Turn 2 on the entire back straightaway, I kept getting hit and the rear tires are off the ground. I know there is a lot of energy behind me in the pack, but I didn’t have a chance. I fought it the whole straightaway and finally got turned going into (Turn) 3. It’s very unfortunate. I hate it for Lowe’s. I hate it for Chevrolet. We’ll go to Atlanta next week and see what we can do there.”

Chris Buescher (35th): “We just got going in that stage and thought we were running pretty good. It got three wide there, but we were running decently there in the middle. We went down the back three wide and we got to turn three and it looked like all of a sudden, we were four wide, we just ran out of real estate. … It ended up looking like something we saw the last two nights of racing. That is something we didn’t expect to happen here.”

Dale Earnhardt Jr. (37th): “I really enjoyed the whole week. We had a lot of fun. Everybody was looking forward to getting back to the race track. It meant a lot to me. And I’m just sorry we weren’t able to deliver a better result today for all our fans and everybody that was looking forward to today. We had a great car. At least we went out leading the race. … I don’t really know what happened there with the wreck. It just looks like Kyle (Busch) had a flat tire. I turned the wheel left, but you’re also out of the gas there and it got on the splitter and just kind of goes straight. … It’s going to be a fun season and we’ve got pretty high spirits. This was not the result we wanted today; but like I say, it’s been a great week.”

Kyle Busch (38th): “I don’t know if it was a left rear that went down or the right that went down but man, tore up three JGR (Joe Gibbs Racing) cars in one hit and also Jr. (Dale Earnhardt Jr.). So I feel bad, horrible, for those guys, but man, nothing that we did wrong. You know obviously Goodyear tires just aren’t very good at holding air. It’s very frustrating when we have that down here every single year we’ve been here. Last year we had it as well too. … Thankfully we have I guess a segment point you know out of this day. That’s a positive. But man, you’re trying to win the Daytona 500 here you know. It’s just so disappointing.”

Erik Jones (39th): “We were just kind of riding around and trying to bide our time there. I think we were going to cycle out in a good spot and unfortunately I don’t know if Kyle (Busch) cut a tire or what but when we were cycling through those three cars there he just got loose into (turn) three and lost it and I got in the side of him. Couldn’t do much about it. … We spent most of the day kind of working our way up through and biding our time and we were finally in the position we wanted to be there to be cycled out with some JGR (Joe Gibbs Racing) teammates and our Furniture Row teammate (Martin Truex Jr.). Nothing we could do.”

Matt Kenseth (40th): “Went into turn three, made sure I was clear and it looked like Kyle (Busch) spun out in front of Erik (Jones) and I didn’t have anywhere to go. So we had to kind of snake through there and into the corner at a weird angle. I looked back to make sure I was clear and when I looked back up they were already crashed in front of me and I already had Erik (Jones) parked on my hood. Just happened pretty quick. I just didn’t have anywhere to go. Never saw it happen and didn’t have anywhere to go.”

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After pit penalty, Denny Hamlin wins second Can-Am Duel

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With a push from Austin Dillon, Denny Hamlin shot past Dale Earnhardt Jr. with two laps remaining and went unchallenged to win the second Can-Am Duel qualifying race.

Hamlin, who received a pit penalty during a competition caution, led four laps all night on the way to the his third-career win in a Daytona 500 qualifying race.

The defending Daytona 500 winner was followed by Clint Bowyer, Kurt Busch, AJ Allmendinger and Dillon as Earnhardt finished sixth.

“Got a great push there from Austin, we worked well together the entire race,” Hamlin told Fox Sports 1. “I’ll keep that in mind for the 500. Looked like our cars were really good together. Can’t thank this team enough.”

Hamlin bounced back after he had to restart from the rear following a penalty for driving through too many pit boxes as he left his own pit stall.

Hamlin took the win from Earnhardt, who led 53 of the race’s 60 laps. Entering Turn 3 with two laps left, Earnhardt went low as the push from Dillon gave Hamlin enough momentum to get around on the high side.

“I don’t know what I could have done differently to defend that,” Earnhardt told FS1. “As soon as I heard (Dillon) was clear on the outside, I knew they were going to have a big run. Denny is so smart, he knows what he’s doing out there. One of the better plate racers out there.”

Earnhardt was making his first start in a race since July after recovering from a concussion that forced him to miss the final 18 races of 2016.

Canadian driver DJ Kennington raced his way into the Daytona 500, which will be his second NASCAR Cup Series start.

Timmy Hill and Reed Sorenson failed to qualify for the race.

WHO HAD A GOOD NIGHT: Bowyer started and finished second in his first race action with Stewart-Haas Racing … Allmendinger finished fourth for his best result in 10 Daytona 500 qualifying races … Danica Patrick finished seventh, tying her best qualifying race result from last year.

WHO HAD A BAD NIGHT: Jimmie Johnson was involved in an accident on Lap 48 that caused minor damage to him, Ryan Blaney and Erik Jones. It was Johnson’s third accident of Speedweeks after two in the Advance Auto Parts Clash on Sunday. He finished 13th while Blaney finished 20th and Jones came home 19th in his first qualifying race.

NOTABLE: Hamlin’s win gives him three victories in the Daytona 500 qualifying races … Bowyer matched his best result in a qualifying race (2011).

QUOTE OF THE NIGHT: “It’s the most amazing feeling in the world. … This is one of the biggest moments of my life. All the guys at work that pitch in so I can come do this, thank you everybody, I really appreciate it.” – DJ Kennington after racing his way into the Daytona 500.

WHAT’S NEXT: The 59th Daytona 500 at 2 p.m. ET Sunday on Fox.

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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