The computer screen glowed in the dark. Michael Waltrip was not
surprised by what it revealed. "My name is at the top for a
reason," said Waltrip as he sat in his motor home last Thursday
at Daytona and pointed to a list of the fastest practice laps for
the Pepsi 400. "I know how to draft as well as anybody and use
the air as well as anybody. If you give me a fast car, which is
what I have, I'll beat you."
Well, not every time. Though Waltrip ran at or near the lead for
most of last Saturday night's race, a gamble in fuel strategy
backfired, forcing him to make a late-race pit stop under green
and dropping him to an 11th-place finish. Still, Waltrip's solid
run--and prerace confidence--further underscored the fact that,
at age 40, the kid brother of NASCAR legend Darrell Waltrip has
established himself as a championship-caliber driver. How
improbable is this? Just 2 1/2 years ago Waltrip hadn't won a
race in 462 career starts. Now he's fifth in the standings and
has had four top five finishes this year, including a win at the
Says veteran NASCAR driver Sterling Marlin, "Confidence is so
important in this sport. Michael has it now where he didn't have
it before. It's obvious in the way he drives."
Indeed, Waltrip appears more comfortable at all types of tracks
this year. Along with performing well in restrictor-plate
races--long his hallmark--he finished third at Las Vegas and
fifth at Darlington, both intermediate-length tracks.
Waltrip has benefited from design changes made to the DEI Monte
Carlo that have given the 2003 car more downforce, but perhaps
more significant have been modifications made to the driver
himself, specifically to his level of physical fitness. At 6'5"
the tallest racer in Winston Cup, Waltrip had a history of
wearing down after too many laps spent crammed into the cockpit.
Last January he weighed 235 pounds, but by running 20 miles a
week since then, he's slimmed down to 195. "My brother used to
lose positions at the end of the race, and that's because he
wasn't sharp due to poor conditioning," says Darrell. "But now at
the end he's like a runner with a great kick."
"I feel like I can now outlast any driver on the track," says
Michael. "It's a small thing, but for me the small things are
finally adding up."