March 3, 2001
In Vegas, Waltrip talks of Daytona
By JIM UTTER, Thatsracin.Com Writer
LAS VEGAS - All the answers to the questions surrounding Dale Earnhardt's death in a last-lap wreck at the Daytona 500 last month have yet to be answered.
Some may never be answered.
Regardless, Michael Waltrip has been comforted each day since with one thought:
"I know for sure that the last thing Dale knew in this world is that Dale Jr. and I were going to go off and (one of us) win the Daytona 500, and I hope that put a smile on his face," said Waltrip, who will start fourth in Sunday's UAW-DaimlerChrysler 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (2:30 p.m. Eastern, Fox).
"It was Dale's turn to go and the only way I could have such peace inside that I have is because I know he knew that. People ask me all the time (about the win) and say `congratulations' and then `sorry.' I'm sorry Dale's gone, but I'm so happy I won because that's why he hired me - to win - and I did."
Waltrip went out of his way last weekend at Rockingham to remind media and fans he would not talk about his Daytona 500 win, because, he said, the week should be reserved to share memories of Earnhardt. Saturday was Waltrip first extensive interview regarding his win.
Not only did Waltrip end his 462-race winless streak with his victory in the season opener, but he has also built strong momentum for his new team, one of three fielded by DEI. The teams of Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Steve Park are the others.
"This was a new team, but I thought all the pieces of the team were proven. Dale's team, his car builders, his engine buiders, I had confidence in all of them that they knew what they were doing," Waltrip said. "I didn't buy into the fact that it would take time to gel. I thought that would be an excuse.
"I felt with my experience and knowledge and the kind of cars I was going to get, I needed to go out and run good right away."
Waltrip said the excitement of his first victory has not diminished but that he will also always remember the friend he lost on the same day.
"I'm so excited I won that race, but I still have a lot questions in my mind, too. Dale was such a leader. He could get things done," Waltrip said. "He would sit up there at his desk at the end of the building (at Dale Earnhardt Inc.) and I was friends with him and I didn't have any problems running up there and telling him things I thought or felt.
"I know in time it will work out, but that is a tremendous thing to lose. I really respected and appreciated his leadership."
On many occasions in his Winston Cup career, Waltrip appeared to have a chance to win, only to have circumstances change at the last minute. Waltrip never gave up his belief he had the ability to win races in the series.
Three-time series champion Jeff Gordon said he could see a change in Waltrip before this season started, starting last year when Waltrip's hiring by DEI was announced.
"(Waltrip) had been in some rides for a while that weren't really where he wanted to be and probably wasn't the best situation. I think Dale, giving him that opportunity, meant a lot to him," Gordon said. "They do things over there the way it should be done, the way we tried to do it at Hendrick Motorsports where you build the cars and the teams the best that they can be.
"I think Michael knew that going in. It gave him some confidence. I think certainly after winning the Daytona 500 that's going to give you some confidence, too, and obviously they've put together some good cars and good teams (at DEI)."
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