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DAYTONA 500 Waltrip leaves car behind, but has another



Published: Fri, February 21, 2003 @ 12:00 a.m.



His winning car will be on display for a year, but he has a similar one to race with.

THE ORLANDO SENTINEL

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- It was fine with Michael Waltrip that his Daytona 500-winning car was taken from him Monday, to sit useless to him for a year, on display in the Daytona USA theme attraction.

That's the custom here, but few winners of NASCAR's showcase race like it. Leaving behind the specially tailored cars leaves them with lesser chances in the three remaining restrictor-plate races each season, two at Talladega, Ala., and the Pepsi 400 here each July.

No driver has won the Daytona 500 and then gone on to win the next plate race, at Talladega in April, since the late Davey Allison in 1992.

That handicap, plus the $300,000 or so that usually goes into developing and building a car capable of winning here, makes the $100,000 rent paid by Daytona USA seem a pittance.

Another car he likes

But Waltrip has another custom super-speedway car he likes just as well.

"We tested two cars down here [in January]," he said, "No. 14 and No. 21."

Don't be confused that his Chevrolet Monte Carlo carries No. 15 in races. He referred to the inventory numbers of the cars at the Dale Earnhardt Inc. team complex near Kannapolis, N.C.

No. 21 was the particular edition of No. 15 that he drove to victory in Sunday's rain-shortened Daytona 500. And No. 21's the one placed in Daytona USA on Monday.

"No. 14 was the one I won Daytona with last July," Waltrip said. "No. 21 was a brand-new car.

"I never asked Slugger [crew chief Richard Labbe] which car we were going to bring down here for the Daytona 500 because they were equally fast. I would have been fine with either one of them. I didn't really care which one he brought.

"They can have No. 21, and we'll race No. 14 again. No. 14's got a pretty impressive record. She ran second at Talladega [last April]. She ran fifth in the Daytona 500 last year. She won here in July. She was leading a lot at Talladega last October and she finished eighth. We'll have to bring her out, give her a chance to continue. I like her a lot."

Sweet talk

What's with all the sweet talk, the personification of 3,400 pounds of nuts, bolts, steel bars and sheet metal -- in the feminine gender at that?

It's a Waltrip family thing begun by Michael's older brother, Darrell, when he was at the peak of his Winston Cup stardom in the 1980s.

At least Michael sticks to stock numbers. Darrell used to name his cars. His all-time favorite was a tough Monte Carlo named Bertha, who did well at rugged tracks like Darlington and Rockingham because, he claimed, "Sometimes, at the shop, I crawl up under her and tickle her a little bit."

Darrell won three Winston Cup championships, but Michael has yet to win a season title. And winning the season-opening Daytona 500 usually bodes ill for championship chances.

That's partly because the season includes only the four restrictor-plate races but 32 races at tracks that require vastly different engine and aerodynamic packages in the cars.

Only once in the "plate racing" era, from 1988 to present, has a driver won the Daytona 500 and followed up with the season championship. That was Jeff Gordon in 1997.

Bodes well

But Michael Waltrip said that this 500 does indeed bode well for his entire season. He bristled at mention that the only three Winston Cup points wins of his career have come here: the 2001 Daytona 500 in which his car owner, Dale Earnhardt, was killed, last summer's Pepsi 400, and Sunday.

"I feel like I'm wrongly called 'only able to race in plate races,' " he said. "I don't think that's fair. It will just be a matter of time before I prove that's not valid.

"I think we'll fare much better this year at other tracks. We're prepared to do so."

He shrugged, smiled and added, "But this ain't a bad place to win until you can get everything else worked out."




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