Popularity, fame and goodwill from the general public in this country can change in an instant. Today’s favorite athlete can be tomorrow’s public enemy number one; we revel in building people up only to claw like vicious cats while helping them roll down the mountain. In some cases, like cycling’s Lance Armstrong, the presence of new, disturbing facts or crimes committed leave us feeling betrayed. We replace posters with protests, turn our backs and forget how much these athletes were loved like role models without so much as a second glance. It’s a pattern we’ve seen repeated again, and again, and again with no signs of stopping anytime soon, the cruel underbelly we term “human nature.”
In most cases, though, unlike our court system of innocence or guilt, the lines are not black and white. People are more complex than their shallow public personae, stories that give us spotty insight into who these athletes actually are.
It is here, in this world of gray that we find the man NASCAR Nation currently loves to hate: Michael Waltrip.
Hard to believe for newer fans, but Waltrip once was the sport’s most popular underdog. Fast forward to February 2001, bright sunshine beaming down upon Daytona International Speedway and the story for Waltrip and his new No. 15 team was one of hope. For 15 years, the man known then as Darrell’s younger brother had toiled in the Cup Series, holding a full-time ride but never recording a points-paying victory. His track record entering NASCAR’s 2001 Super Bowl was a dismal 0-for-462 career starts despite driving for teams like the legendary Wood Brothers. Financially, he’d held solid sponsorship from companies like Pennzoil, Citgo and Maxwell House Coffee but never had a season with more than five top-five finishes.
During the years, he had come oh-so-close – second at Pocono in 1988, third at Darlington in 1991 after dominating most of that spring race. But success had dwindled further in the late 1990s, increasing fan respect and adoration toward him. Waltrip was, in their eyes, the lovable loser, a man who deserved much more than his stats sheet would give him credit for. The pairing with good buddy Dale Earnhardt Sr. entering 2001 sent popularity soaring, fans of the Intimidator respecting the decision to throw Waltrip into a third car at Dale Earnhardt Inc. with sponsor NAPA Auto Parts. As the aforementioned Darrell, a three-time Cup champion and a second-ballot NASCAR Hall of Famer, officially retired, it was time for Michael to shove himself into the spotlight.
Popularity eked even higher in the face of triumph paired with unspeakable tragedy. Waltrip won that year’s 500, making his track record 1-for-463, but his owner never got the chance to see it. Earnhardt was killed mere seconds before that checkered flag, an on-track incident that changed NASCAR safety and marred Waltrip’s first Cup win forever. Instead of celebrating, he spent the night in tears. A whirlwind national media tour was stopped midweek for a funeral. Waltrip would write in his book a decade later that his marriage to wife Buffy saw the seeds of divorce planted that year, his difficulty in working through the emotional mess becoming a trigger for future problems.
All these issues combined made Waltrip a sympathetic figure for quite sometime. A second Daytona 500 victory, in 2003 also provided some validity he wasn’t just a guy with a famous last name; two top-15 points finishes proved he could be consistent with the right equipment. Sure, people didn’t like his constant sponsor shills, the sign of a NASCAR shifting toward the needs of its Fortune 500 support system but they could put up with it. Waltrip, if anything was a victim of unfortunate circumstances; there were plenty of other drivers and teams to hate.
But then, come 2005, the emergence of Toyota’s interest in the sport changed everything for longtime fans unwilling to accept the foreign manufacturer. Waltrip, taking the public by storm (or by force, as he often does) held a huge press conference announcing himself as the poster boy of the Camry’s transition to Sprint Cup competition. Almost instantly, perception of him changed; victim turned to venom as those who hated foreign influence now had an American face to pair with it. Sit there and think about that a second; one decision, one moment in time destroyed decades worth of building love and respect toward certain accomplishments. One decision shouldn’t define a man; Toyota’s entrance to NASCAR didn’t destroy the series. Was it fair? At the time, that answer was debatable.
But then Waltrip’s Toyota debut was marked by not playing fair. Jet fuel discovered in a Daytona engine led to crippling penalties, national embarrassment and the worst possible scenario for his sponsorship partners. A series of DNQs would follow, roping in even teammate and former Sprint Cup champion Dale Jarrett. Performance remained so bad Toyota executives had to actively search for a replacement for their lead team within two years (Joe Gibbs Racing was selected in 2009). If not for the emergence of business partner Rob Kauffman, Michael Waltrip Racing might have been defunct by the end of last decade.
As the struggle intensified, playing out before NASCAR Nation minor annoyances in the past in regards to Waltrip became major gripes. Earning gigs within NASCAR TV broadcasting also led to a case of overexposure when it came to Waltrip’s constant sponsor naming and bias toward Toyota teams and drivers. A rise to the ranks of the FOX pre-race show for Cup has only made the haters hate more.
For a time, Waltrip fought back, getting his teams in order and hiring quality wheelmen like Clint Bowyer and Mark Martin to help turn his program around. But after a runner-up finish in the points, earned by Bowyer in ’12 helped earn the organization respect the saga of Spingate the following year stripped it away. An intentional move in the Richmond regular season finale saw team car Bowyer spin himself out, a wreck-inducing caution aimed at putting teammate Martin Truex Jr. in the Chase. Manipulating the finish of the race while failing to cover their tracks, a bold move revealed quickly by nosy reporters became the bulls-eye of blame for people exasperated over a decade of change within the sport. Funny how other problems become yours to hold when you’re the biggest troublemaker seen in the rearview mirror, right?
It’s the downside of being a public figure, left with so much to lose when a mistake turns the witch-hunt toward you. Waltrip wasn’t the only one who’s used team orders this century. He’s not the only man so desperate over the profit margins of missing the Chase that the team becomes willing to try moves that are outright illegal. But Waltrip, already sliding down the slippery slope of public perception was the car owner who wound up caught. Neither he nor his team have been the same ever since, struggling over the past two seasons while losing a cadre of sponsors and failing to reach Victory Lane.
Now, consistent failure has taken Waltrip to the precipice of what could be the end. Kauffman, adamant this month he and Waltrip are close friends is also clearly moving his financial investment, the money keeping MWR viable, over to Chip Ganassi Racing in 2016. Bowyer is almost certainly headed there, too smartly paired with the money that will keep his career afloat. Waltrip, the most talkative man in the NASCAR garage has kept his mouth shut during the process, running from the reporters he typically runs to whether they’d like to hear from him or not.
Who will help Waltrip through it all? Aaron’s, whose executive board has a long-lasting connection with the Waltrips has remained silent; Toyota, through a series of bland quotes seems indifferent on whether their former frontman stays with the program. At best, MWR merges into CGR and Waltrip becomes a figurehead in much the same way Teresa Earnhardt was once a “figurehead” for the dissolving DEI. At worst… he’s left with the shambles of a single-car program at best, his former business partner recognizing the Waltrip business model has run its course, similar to a top-40 song that has outlived its popularity and needs to be taken off the radio.
These endings happen to athletes all the time; rare is the John Elway-style ending where we see a prominent figure within a sport exit on top. Was Waltrip as bad as some may want you to believe? Absolutely not. He didn’t drive that car Bowyer spun, pour the jet fuel into the engine or wish one of his best friends would die on his biggest day. Human beings are more complex than “love” or “hate.”
But sports fans, in this day and age don’t have the capacity for “complex.” They have quick answers and feelings while writing 140 characters and moving on. And Waltrip, once a shining light of popularity now sits in the awkward position of having his tail caught between his legs.
Who would have ever thought, 14 years ago heading to the checkered flag at Daytona it would come to that?