SPARTA — As a boy growing up in Owensboro in the 1970s, Michael Waltrip was such a devout Kentucky Wildcats fan he'd stay up on school nights to watch tape-delayed TV broadcasts of UK basketball games that came on after the late local news.
"I loved watching Jay Shidler and Kyle Macy and those boys shoot the long ball back then," Waltrip said of the late '70s UK guards.
That's the same Michael Waltrip who was at Kentucky Speedway on Thursday decked out in a shirt with a Louisville Cardinals logo while unveiling a race car — to be driven by Brian Vickers — that will run a paint scheme honoring the 2013 U of L NCAA men's basketball national champions in Saturday night's Quaker State 400.
"I know it will be really popular with about half the fans," Waltrip said sarcastically. "Some of (the UK fans) don't think this is the best idea I've ever had."
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One UK fan who feels that way is someone Waltrip knows pretty well — his older brother, NASCAR legend and ardent Wildcats backer, Darrell Waltrip.
"I told Michael," Darrell said last week, "this is the craziest idea he's ever had."
On Saturday night, when the green flag drops on the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series' third annual visit to Kentucky Speedway, a new version of an old joke may be appropriate: Fans will show up for a stock-car race, but an episode of the Kentucky-Louisville college sports rivalry could break out.
U of L fans will have the No. 55 Aaron's Toyota Camry decked out in Cardinals red-and-white to yell for. UK fans will have a chance to cheer, too. Kentucky men's basketball Coach John Calipari will drive the pace car for the Quaker State 400 in the parade laps before the race.
So on Saturday night, who gets more cheers or louder boos from the Kentucky Speedway crowd — the Louisville Cardinals car or the Kentucky Wildcats coach?
On Thursday, it was Louisville's day at the Speedway. Waltrip and Vickers were joined by U of L men's basketball star Russ Smith, women's basketball coach Jeff Walz and the Cardinals mascot, among others, to officially unveil the Louisville paint scheme for the No. 55 Camry.
"The car looks cool, it's awesome," Smith said. "I've never been (this) close to something that cool."
This will be the sixth time since 2010 that Michael Waltrip Racing and sponsor Aaron's have run cars in Cup races with paint schemes honoring college sports national champions. Three times at Talladega, MWR cars have honored Alabama football national titles; once at the Alabama track, MWR did the same for an Auburn BCS championship.
Last year at Kentucky Speedway, Waltrip drove a UK basketball national championship-themed car — and finished 30th.
I asked Vickers, a Thomasville, N.C., native who has two career Cup wins, if he could guarantee Louisville fans that the U of L car would "beat the Kentucky car" by finishing better than 30th?
The 29-year-old driver laughed.
"I've learned the hard way there are no guarantees in racing," Vickers said.
Given that Louisville men's basketball coach Rick Pitino famously promised his team he would get a tattoo if they won it all and then followed through, I asked Russ Smith if he would vow to do the same if the No. 55 U of L national champions car won Saturday night's race.
"I have tattoos already," he said. "So I'd probably get (another) one anyway."
Were Vickers to put the No. 55 on the pole in qualifying, the U of L national champions car would be lined up for the start of the race directly behind the pace car — driven by the Kentucky Wildcats head coach.
At 3:10 p.m. Saturday, Calipari is scheduled to go through an on-site training session so he can drive the Ford Fusion pace car. If all goes well, the UK coach will lead a field filled with the biggest stars in American motorsports around the mile-and-a-half Kentucky Speedway oval before peeling off just before the green flag starts the race. From what I'm told, Cal has commissioned a special "driver's jacket" he will wear for the job, which he will then auction for charity.
So who gets booed or cheered more — U of L car or UK coach — on Saturday night?
Admittedly, fans Kentucky Speedway draws from Ohio and Indiana are wild cards. Still, for a crowd at a major Kentucky sporting event held "out in the state," I'm going to guess the U of L car gets some cheers but more boos and Calipari gets some boos but a louder cheer.
Just think, in a lot of states before a Sprint Cup race, the only thing they have to talk about is which driver will win.
Friday: Nationwide: Feed The Children 300, 7:30 p.m. (ESPN) Saturday: Sprint Cup: Quaker State 400, 7:30 p.m. (TNT)
A six-page special section previewing NASCAR's Sprint Cup race at Kentucky Speedway.
What's in a paint job?
How cars running for Michael Waltrip Racing and sponsor Aaron's have fared when running paint schemes that honor college sports national championship teams:
Year Team honored Track Driver Finish
2010 2009 Alabama football Talladega David Reutimann 14th
2011 2010 Auburn football Talladega Michael Waltrip 28th
2012 2011 Alabama football Talladega Clint Bowyer 6th
2012 2012 UK basketball Kentucky Michael Waltrip 30th
2013 2012 Alabama football Talladega Michael Waltrip 4th
2013 2013 U of L basketball Kentucky Brian Vickers ??