- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 14, 2004

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Michael Waltrip is used to being overlooked.

He spent years known only as the little brother of three-time NASCAR points champion Darrell Waltrip. Even with two victories in the last three Daytona 500s, he’s referred to as Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s teammate.

“I don’t really pay any attention to that,” said Waltrip, who goes into tomorrow’s NASCAR Nextel Cup season opener as one of the favorites. “I’m proud of Darrell and what he has accomplished in his life, and I’m proud to be part of the team started by my friend Dale Earnhardt.”

Waltrip was well on his way to a career as little more than a racing journeyman when the elder Earnhardt signed him in the winter of 2000 to a contract with Dale Earnhardt Inc., the team he founded.

The Intimidator said he was certain there was more to the fun-loving Waltrip than had come to light in 15 seasons without a victory in NASCAR’s top stock car series.

“Michael Waltrip will win races, and he can be a champion,” Earnhardt said that winter.

Unfortunately, the seven-time Cup champion wasn’t around to watch his new protege develop.

Earnhardt, who still drove for his old friend Richard Childress, was trailing Waltrip and Earnhardt Jr. when he was killed in a crash on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. Waltrip held off Junior for a victory that was all but forgotten because of the death of the sport’s most popular driver.

Waltrip, now 40, still hasn’t fulfilled all of his friend’s predictions. He has been unable to win anywhere but NASCAR’s two biggest tracks. He finished 24th in the points in his first year with DEI, improved to 14th in 2002, then slipped to 15th last year.

Waltrip, though, has become a winner in tandem with Junior. They have developed into a dominating duo at Daytona and Talladega, the two tracks where NASCAR requires carburetor restrictor plates to keep the cars under 200 mph. Between them, they have won nine of the last 11 Cup races on NASCAR’s two biggest ovals.

Earnhardt has won five of them, including four in a row at Talladega and the 2001 July race at Daytona. Waltrip has added a win in the July 2002 race here and a victory last fall at Talladega.

With two 500 victories, he accomplished what the elder Earnhardt and the elder Waltrip couldn’t. Those two each won NASCAR’s biggest race once in long and distinguished careers.

Now he has a chance to make it three, and not even criticism by Earnhardt Jr.’s crew chief, Tony Eury Sr., can ruin his focus. Eury accused Waltrip of “dumping” his teammate in the draft during their 125-mile qualifying race Thursday. Junior won the race, and Waltrip finished fourth.

“I didn’t even know there was a controversy until the race was over,” Waltrip said. “I was just racing. I don’t care what Tony Eury says. I love Dale Jr., and we’ll do our jobs on Sunday.”

Earnhardt, who goes into the race as the odds-on favorite, insists he will work with Waltrip even if it means helping his teammate win again at Daytona.

“Michael has won two of the last three, and I feel like he’s at the top of the list,” Junior said.

Three of the four drivers who have won three or more Daytona 500s are retired. Richard Petty won seven, Cale Yarborough four and Bobby Allison three. Another win by Waltrip would match Dale Jarrett, the only active driver with three victories in the Great American Race.

“Dale Jr.’s the favorite. He’s the most popular and he’s probably due, but the competition and the people in the garage area know I stand a pretty good chance of being a three-time winner after Sunday,” Waltrip said. “And I have that confidence, too.”

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