As the 59th running of the Daytona 500 looms ahead, the drivers in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series will all be gunning for the opportunity to call themselves champions of the “Great American Race”, but for Michael Waltrip, this race takes on another dimension as it will be his last behind the wheel.
After making his 784th career start in the Cup Series, Waltrip will be hanging up his helmet at the conclusion of Sunday’s race, bringing his 32-year driving career to an end at the track that brought him his first career win after struggling for so long.
“It’s my 30th and final one and I just thought it was a cool place to run my last race. 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, so I’m looking forward to my opportunity to go out there and compete one last time and then sort of slow down I guess,” said Waltrip.
The 53-year old Kentucky native notoriously went winless in the Cup Series for the first 16 years and 462 races of his career before finally breaking through for his first win in the 2001 Daytona 500 while driving in his first race for Dale Earnhardt, Inc. He would follow his 2001 Daytona 500 triumph with two more wins at Daytona in the July 2002 race and the 2003 Daytona 500. Along with those three Daytona wins, Waltrip also won the fall race at Talladega in 2003.
After leaving Dale Earnhardt, Inc. to start his own team following the 2005 season, Waltrip continued to drive full-time through 2009, but never found the same success behind the wheel and transitioned to a part-time schedule in the years to follow, mainly driving at the restrictor plate tracks of Talladega and Daytona while focusing on his efforts as a team owner with his Michael Waltrip Racing team.
Though MWR folded at the conclusion of the 2015 season, Waltrip was still able to race in 2016 for BK Racing and Jay Robinson.
“When we ran last year’s Daytona 500, it didn’t go well. 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 I think 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.”
For his final start, Waltrip will be driving the No. 15 Toyota for Premium Motorsports and will be sponsored by his longtime sponsor Aaron’s, which has backed him for the majority of his career.
“You’ve got to quit sometime and the partnership with Aaron’s has been important to me. They could wrap their arms around us doing a final race together. They made a commercial that aired on FS1, so I’m thankful for that and a bunch of the folks that have been with me – they’ve been my sponsor for I think 18 years, so a bunch of the folks that work there are going to come down and celebrate our last race together, so that was kind of important to me to share it with them.”
“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, but Aaron’s really wanted to help. They wanted me to celebrate it. They wanted to help me celebrate it and they made a great commercial that aired on FS1 during the Clash and the other activities last weekend, so I’m just – you know, I’m thankful that they cared, and that makes me happy, and my friends at Toyota as well.”
After qualifying last Sunday, Waltrip timed in 35th and will start the second of Thursday’s Can-Am Duels in 17th. Though he is locked into the Daytona 500 regardless of where he finishes on Thursday, Waltrip knows the odds of a third win in the “Great American Race” are stacked against him and his team, but still remains optimistic that they can be competitive on Sunday.
“I qualified 35th, so that’s not good. 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.”