For a retired guy, Michael Waltrip seems to be popping up everywhere these days. From his TV duties at SPEED, including a job as the new co-host of Fast Track To Fame, to an ownership role in his three-car Cup Series operation, there’s more ways than ever the man once known as “Darrell’s younger brother” can forge his own path in the sport as he moves on to the next phase of his life and career.
But just when we thought Waltrip was out of the cockpit for good… he showed up in the most surprising of ways. Announcing a one-race deal for Talladega driving Phil Parsons’s No. 55 Toyota, Waltrip turned around and bumped Michael McDowell from the driver’s seat of that unsponsored operation for Bristol. What followed was unprecedented at the Cup level: a celebrity start-and-park in which Waltrip pulled the car off the track well before the cars even got to the 100-lap mark. Why choose to run a start-and-park car when you’re already a team owner yourself (and two-time Daytona 500 winner)? Jay Pennell asked him that question and more, catching up with the mercurial Waltrip during a slowdown in Food City 500 practice at Bristol last week.
Jay W. Pennell, Frontstretch: You’re back in the No. 55 this weekend, but the situation is a little different with you not running the entire race.
Michael Waltrip: We’re here to get ready for Talladega. I got a sponsor with Aaron’s to race the No. 55 at Talladega, and I wanted to get to know the guys a little bit. Man, it’s fun to run at Bristol. So I just wanted to get some laps. We made the race and we’re going to run a little bit – I don’t know how long – but all this is prepping for Talladega and getting me some laps.
Pennell: Is it strange to qualify for the race, put all the work into it, and then not run the whole race?
Waltrip: We would like to race. If we had a sponsor, we’d race for sure. I’ve never started a race thinking I wasn’t going to finish it. I didn’t finish a bunch, or a few, but I never certainly knew it was going to happen. It is weird, you’re right. Phil [Parsons] and Randy [Humphrey] are doing a great job with this team. [Dave] Blaney is third, they want to race. I was real fortunate that Aaron’s wanted me to race Talladega. It’s just really hard to get money. It’s so hard. They’re building their team and trying to show people that they’ve got cars that can compete if they can just get some sponsorship.
Pennell: I also wanted to ask you how you are adjusting to the life of a retired guy. I saw on Twitter you were joking about shuffleboard and the early-bird special. Has it been a big change for you?
Waltrip: No, not really. I just do all that stuff for fun. I’m probably as busy as I’ve ever been. I’ve been to all the races, I’m leaving on Tuesday for Belgium to test the Ferrari, we’re racing Spa (Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps) in July, going to the Goodwin Festival to visit some friends over there, so I’ve totally got a lot of stuff going on. Mainly, it’s my job to support my team and get Martin [Truex Jr.], David [Reutimann], Marcos [Ambrose] and Trevor [Bayne] all the equipment, tools and intellectual property to win races. I do that every day whether I’m at the shop in meetings with the guys or on the road taking care of sponsors – that’s kind of my main job these days.
Pennell: That was my next question: how many days a week do you typically spend at the shop?
Waltrip: I work out about every day when I’m at home and I work out at the shop. While I’m there, I’m always involved in something that’s going on. Ty Norris, Cal Wells, those guys do a great job running the day-to-day business, so I don’t have to be a big part of that. Nonetheless, there’s always something for me to do.
Pennell: You guys brought on Martin Truex Jr. and have stepped up your performance so far this year, what are your expectations?
Waltrip: Well, we expect to win. That’s what we told NAPA we would do. We have all the parts and pieces and the budget to win. We’re four races in and we haven’t won yet. We want to win multiple times. We just keep focused on getting our cars better and giving Martin, David and Marcos the tools they need to go do the job with. We contended for a spot in the Chase throughout 2009, and we have in our goals for ’10 to put a car in the Chase and win multiple races. It’s that simple.
Pennell: What do guys like Trevor Bayne and Ryan Truex bring to your organization?
Waltrip: Youthful enthusiasm, a lot of talent, and hopefully a part of our future. As difficult as it is today to get sponsorship, we just continually have to evaluate it to see what we can do to get them seat time. We’ve done a pretty nice job so far getting Ryan and Trevor, particularly Trevor, a full Nationwide Series schedule teaming with Gary Bechtel and Diamond-Waltrip Motorsports. We’ve really been creative on the business side at MWR, partnering with Todd and Jodi Geschickter and Brad Daugherty with Marcos’s car, and then with the Bechtels on Trevor’s car and we’ve figured out a way to get Ryan some races as well. We just need more sponsors, just like everyone else, so we can do more races.
Pennell: Are you pleased with where MWR is now from where you started and all the struggles you endured in your first few years?
Waltrip: I think so. I think that last year, we got to where we thought we could contend and saw some fun things. David sitting on the pole, winning a race and contending for the Chase, Marcos right there, probably the breakout season of any driver. Ambrose had that in our equipment. You know, we went to Las Vegas this spring and finished with three cars in the top 20 and we were bummed. That’s a good sign for a young organization. We feel like we’re better than that. We have to be better than that to accomplish our goals. It wasn’t too long ago that three cars in the top 20 was a career day for MWR – now, it’s just not good enough.