If anyone in Sprint Cup garage has a love affair with the camera, it's owner/driver Michael Waltrip.
For years, NASCAR's most accomplished pitchman has livened up TV commercials for his sponsors—NAPA Auto Parts, Aaron's and Best Western, to name a few. On Thursday at 8 p.m., NASCAR fans will have a chance to see the Owensboro native in a new setting—in a substantial role on NBC's "My Name Is Earl."
The episode, "Inside Probe," also features Geraldo Rivera, who arrives to investigate the disappearance of the owner of the Crab Shack, a recurring location for the show's action. The sitcom stars Jason Lee as Earl Hickey, who's doing his best to make amends for a misspent life.
"When I do those commercials, I like to think I'm acting," Waltrip said in an interview on the set during filming. "This is the next step. I'm on a TV show. Geraldo Rivera's sitting right there asking me questions, Jason Lee and everybody on the show. It's a real honor for me to be on the show and step out of my world somewhat.
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"I think this is the first real TV show I've ever done. I've done a few spots, cameos on different things, Comedy Channel stuff, but this is real. 'Earl' is an instant classic, and I promise you that the demographics for an 'Earl' fan and a NASCAR fan—and racecar drivers, too, as far as that goes—lay over top of each other perfectly.
"I know that there's a lot of people in Hollywood, that when they see me standing there in my NAPA suit, they're going to think, 'What's that got to do with anything?' But whoever turns on Earl and sees my big butt standing there, they're going to get it. They're going to understand exactly what I'm doing there—I'm over checking out Earl."
Waltrip got the opportunity to appear as a guest star on the show when Gillian Zucker, president of Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., introduced him to Greg Garcia, the show's creator and executive producer.
Coincidentally, Garcia had a script that would work with Waltrip's appearance (he provides an alibi for Earl and his brother Randy), and Waltrip had a rare week off in the Cup schedule when the episode was filmed March 13.
Despite his affinity for the camera, Waltrip confessed to a few butterflies during his work on the show.
"They do this every day, and here I stumble in as a racecar driver, acting like I know what I'm doing," he said. "I get nervous, because if I have to do it over or don't say my words correctly, and when they say, 'No, we need to do this, or we need to do that,' it makes me think that I'm holding the show up, that I wasn't as prepared as I needed to be.
"It's still intimidating, even if you study the lines like I did and know the lines, it's just hard to say when they say, 'Ok, roll!'"