TALLADEGA, Ala. — Each race weekend that starts without even a hint of winning, each predictable finish toward the back of the field could make Michael Waltrip's racing future painfully clear.
The significant improvement in performance that the Owensboro native wanted to see this season before he decides whether to return in the No. 55 for 2010 is simply not there. And if the 46-year-old veteran doesn't start recording competitive finishes soon, Waltrip could live up to a pre-season promise of climbing out of the driver's seat and into retirement.
Eight races into the Sprint Cup season Waltrip is lagging behind the Chase for the championship contenders. He enters Sunday's race at Talladega Superspeedway buried 25th in the Sprint Cup standings and has finished 24th or worse in five Cup races, failing to build off a seventh-place finish in the Daytona 500.
Waltrip, however, isn't ready to call it quits and devote his full energy toward running Michael Waltrip Racing.
"I've just got to win. That's all there is to it," Waltrip said Saturday at Talladega. "I've got to run up front. I've run as good as my teammates, within a little bit, but they just get the results and I haven't and it's disappointing."
The two-time Daytona 500 winner hasn't won a Cup race since 2003 and has struggled to remain competitive the last three years in his dual role of driver and owner of MWR. If Waltrip retires at the end of his 25th season, he could focus solely on running a race team that also fields an entry for David Reutimann and supports Marcos Ambrose's team.
Reutimann has been a huge surprise for MWR this year. He's won a pole, has two top-10 finishes and is ninth in the points. Waltrip said he was proud of the direction of the team, but he wasn't sure how he fits in next season.
"I still want to race. I don't sign up to be a race car driver so I can wear this cool suit," Waltrip said. "I sign up because I want to win. I think I can. I think I can win tomorrow. But week in and week out, we need to step it up with the 55 a little bit."
His confidence for a solid run Sunday comes from his past success on restrictor plate tracks. All four of his career victories have come on plate tracks when he drove for Dale Earnhardt Inc. — three at Daytona, and one at Talladega in 2003. But he has only one top-five finish and five top-10s in the Cup series since 2005.
Waltrip was the first driver to turn his qualifying lap on Saturday and his result was about the same as it has been all season. He starts 32nd in the 45-car field, the third straight race he'll start in the 30s.
"I think my car's been good. I've been fast," he said. "I've just made some mistakes and messed up."
Waltrip messed up last week at Phoenix when he lost control heading into a corner and spun out Robby Gordon. Gordon hit the wall, his car went to the garage for repairs, then said shortly after the wreck he was "looking forward to having a new driver in the 55 next year."
After an accident last season at Bristol, Clint Bowyer said over his radio: "Michael Waltrip is the worst driver in NASCAR, period."
Waltrip may not be that bad, but he might not be on the track to kick around much longer.
Robert Kauffman, a founder and managing partner in the Fortress Investment Group that invested in MWR late in the 2007 season, said having Waltrip drive a partial schedule in a third entry next year was one of several scenarios tossed around by MWR's management team.
While Kauffman will be part of the discussions, Waltrip has the last word.
"It says MWR, right? So Michael is going to have a big say, and he should have a big say," Kauffman said.
Waltrip said the ultimate goal was finding a way to win a championship at MWR. He just might be celebrating as an owner instead of racing his way into Victory Lane.
"I want to bring NAPA a championship, and if we could figure out an option of getting us closer to the championship with that team, and winning more races with that team, then we're going to look at that really hard," he said.