DAYTONA BEACH, Florida: Michael Waltrip arrived at Daytona International Speedway this week a two-time winner with memories to last a lifetime.
Thursday (Friday in Manila) night was one for the 52-year-old to forget.
Driving a back-up car slower than the one that struggled during Sunday (Monday in Manila) qualifying last week, Waltrip started 13th in the second Cam-Am duel and fell to the rear of the 22-car pack within three laps.
It did not get much better as Waltrip struggled to a 20th-place finish, ahead of journeyman Reed Sorensen and Ryan Newman, whose car blew an engine.
Waltrip figured he was in for a rough ride after he limped to a 27th in qualifying, nearly four miles per hour behind 20-year-old pole sitter Chase Elliott.
“You can’t be the hero the better par of a second off the pole,” Waltrip said. “That’d be a hard day’s work.”
The odds got longer when Waltrip triggered a wreck with Newman, hit the wall and lost his primary car.
Waltrip spends much more time in the broadcast booth for Fox these days than on the race track. But the quick-witted Kentuckian did have some reason for hope, beginning with experience.
Waltrip enters his 29th running of the race one of nine former winners — and four two-time winners — in the 40-car field.
He also shines during restrictor-plate events, winning the 2002 Pepso 400 at Daytona and at Talladega in 2003.
Waltrip stopped racing full-time in 2009, but he is more than a ceremonial driver at those storied tracks. He led four laps at the Daytona 500 in both 2013 and 2014. In 2015, Waltrip finished 13th at Talladega, leading three laps.
“That’s what kept me going is being competitive,” he said. “Until I just can’t get in there or don’t want to get in there and mix it up, I’m going to keep doing it if I get the opportunity.”
This week, Waltrip is driving the No. 83 Camry for BK Racing — his fifth team in five starts at Daytona.
Waltrip returned to driving for his own team last February, but by year’s end Michael Waltrip Racing (WMR) closed its doors after nine years.
The end of MWR was a much tougher loss than Thursday’s duel.
“In a couple of weeks, we’re going to have an auction and that’s sad,” he said. “When you see everything you worked for and sacrificed and all the money you’ve spent come down to an auction, that’s a really harsh reality to be slapped in the face with.”
Waltrip returned to the site of his greatest triumphs seeking positive vibes.
Thursday gave Waltrip little reason to believe he could end a 218-race losing streak with this third Daytona 500 win. Even so, he has achieved more than most at the “Great American Race.”
Some of the sport’s best drivers, like Dale Earnhardt, struggled for years to win here, while others, like Tony Stewart, never did.
Waltrip’s big brother, Darrell, won 84 Sprint Cup races and three season titles, but captured one Daytona 500, in 1989.
“Winning the Daytona 500 was definitely the single-most important day of his career,” Michael Waltrip said. “Everybody wants to have the Daytona 500 trophy.”