Sports

Waltrip took long way to fame

To succeed at the highest level of stock-car racing, Michael Waltrip faced one of the more daunting challenges in sports: Emerging from the shadow of a highly successful older brother.

Darrell Waltrip is a three-time champion of the series now known as Sprint Cup. He won 84 Cup races during his career and is unquestionably one of the giants of NASCAR history.

"When I was growing up, I admired my brother and was a fan of my brother and wanted to be like my brother," Michael Waltrip says.

In pursuing his own career, Michael Waltrip, 16 years younger than Darrell, did not have an easy road in carving out his own identity.

That the Owensboro native ultimately succeeded is evidenced by the fact that, when he retired as a full-time driver after the 2009 season, Michael Waltrip was a two-time Daytona 500 champion. He is also the co-owner of a Sprint Cup series race team that bears his name and one of the more popular television "personalities" in NASCAR.

Further evidence of Michael Waltrip's success in making his own name will come Wednesday when he will be among eight inducted into the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame.

The journey began in Owensboro with a little kid trying to tag along after a hard-charging older brother.

"Mikey was the typical little brother to Darrell; he was always trying to follow him everywhere he went," says Don Aldridge, a Daviess County car dealer who grew up on Greenbriar Street in Owensboro with the Waltrip family.

After Darrell Waltrip left Kentucky to pursue his racing dreams, his younger brother was behind in the commonwealth plotting his own rise.

Beth Darnell (formerly Beth Terrell) took a sophomore geometry course with Michael at Owensboro's Apollo High School.

"I don't know how much geometry Michael learned," Darnell says with a laugh, "but he got really good at practicing his autograph. That's what he did in class, he signed 'Michael Waltrip' over and over. He always knew he was going to be a driver."

After Michael graduated from Apollo in 1981, he headed to North Carolina to launch his own racing career.

Little could Michael have known how long he would have to persevere before tasting success on NASCAR's biggest stage.

Twin wins at Daytona

As a 22-year-old, Michael ran his first Cup Series race in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte in 1985. It was 1988 before he notched his first Top 5 finish in a Cup event.

Across the years, he showed flashes of promise. In 1990, he had five Top Five finishes; the next season, he had four. In both 1994 and '95, he finished 12th in the Cup Series point standings.

The 1996 season brought a signature achievement, as Waltrip scored a victory in NASCAR's All-Star race. Yet as he would hear over and over across the years, that was not a points-paying "regular-season" victory.

By the end of the 2000 season, Waltrip had started 462 Cup points races without ever getting to victory circle. He was Mr. "Oh-for-462."

Many felt his chances had passed him by.

Then one of Michael's fishing and hunting buddies — some guy by the name of Dale Earnhardt — stunned many by offering Waltrip a chance to drive for his race team.

At Dale Earnhardt Inc., Waltrip had access to better cars than he'd ever driven.

For reasons both good and very bad, Michael's first race for his new team proved to be one of the most memorable NASCAR races ever run.

As the 2001 Daytona 500 came to the final lap, Waltrip was in the lead. His teammate, Dale Earnhardt Jr., was running second. And their car owner, Dale Earnhardt the elder, was third in his familiar black No. 3 Chevy.

With Darrell Waltrip providing emotional commentary on the Fox race telecast, Michael finally got his first Cup win by capturing the sport's Super Bowl.

At last in victory circle, Michael Waltrip waited for his car owner to come and give him one of his familiar gruff "neck hugs."

Earnhardt never made it.

As a result of the last-lap accident that engulfed the No. 3 car, the NASCAR icon died just as the driver who, seemingly, only he believed in was claiming victory.

"Michael would probably tell you, he got about 15 minutes of thrill," Darrell Waltrip says of that bittersweet day. "He had just gotten into victory lane when we all found out that Dale Earnhardt had been killed.

"For my brother, I just can't imagine what he felt like. Here it is, after all this time, he's finally won a race and it's the Daytona 500. Yet the guy who was the reason for him being there, Dale, died in the race. It was just horrible."

Two years later, the sports gods were unusually charitable to Michael Waltrip. He passed Jimmie Johnson for the lead on lap 106. When NASCAR stopped and ultimately called the race because of rain three laps later, Michael was a two-time 500 winner.

"The second one was like a way for me and my team to celebrate them both," Michael Waltrip says. "We got the bonus of winning it again so we could celebrate both wins."

Before Waltrip's tenure with DEI ended, he had won four Cup races, all on the restrictor-plate tracks at Talladega and Daytona.

"This year at Daytona, I said on the air that Michael is one of the best restrictor-plate racers of all time," Darrell Waltrip says. "And everybody was like 'you're just saying that because he's your brother.'

"Well, no I wasn't. His track record, two Daytona 500s, shows how good he was on the plate tracks. That type of racing just fit his style. I've always said it's because he has such a big foot and could just mash it and go."

His own race team

The fame that came from those four victories with DEI likely boosted Waltrip in becoming the owner of his own Cup Series race team.

In 2007, when Toyota entered NASCAR's top series, Michael Waltrip Racing was one of the Japanese auto maker's flagship teams.

After a couple of years of financial challenge and controversy (the team was penalized for cheating before its first race, the 2007 Daytona 500), last season MWR earned its first Cup victory when David Reutimann won at Charlotte.

This year, with Waltrip retiring as a full-time driver, the talented Martin Truex Jr. has joined the team.

"It's an exciting year for our team," Michael Waltrip says. "We feel like we can race in the Chase and win some races."

Following his older brother into the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame brings him back to the state where Leroy and Margaret Waltrip's boys first learned how to race.

"I've been in NASCAR for 25 years and to be able to win the races I've won and, basically, for all these years to get to do something I love, I'm very grateful for that," Michael says. "And I truly appreciate the state where I started racing and first learned about how to race a car."

Come Wednesday night, Michael will be the Waltrip brother fully in the spotlight.

"I can say this without reservation, Michael has made a difference in our sport," Darrell Waltrip says. "He's been a great ambassador for NASCAR, he's stuck it out when it got tough with (owning) his race team. What he's done, in its own way, is every bit as impressive as winning 84 races and three championships."

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