This was supposed to be Michael Waltrip’s big year, a celebration of all the hard work he put into building a three-car NASCAR team.
He had a top-name driver in Dale Jarrett, three big-money sponsors and had established Michael Waltrip Racing as the face of Toyota’s entry into the Nextel Cup Series.
Then a cheating scandal at the Daytona 500 nearly ruined everything.
“When we got to Daytona we looked like we belonged, and I think everyone in the garage had to appreciate the amount of work and effort it took to show up like we did,” Waltrip told the Associated Press. “Quite frankly, I think that all changed on Sunday morning when NASCAR took our [intake] manifold. People immediately thought we were trying to take a shortcut and cheat the rules.
“It was very damaging to our organization, and it certainly caused us a lot of heartache and stress.”
Now in California preparing for this weekend’s race in Fontana, Waltrip was somber during a phone interview with the AP. The two-time Daytona 500 winner spent almost 18 months pouring everything he had into MWR, trying hard to do it right and hire the very best people.
It got him Jarrett, the 1999 champion, who left Robert Yates Racing after 11 successful seasons to finish out his career with a startup race team and unproven car owner. UPS, one of NASCAR’s most prominent sponsors, followed Jarrett -- giving Waltrip the flexibility to form a third team with rookie David Reutimann.
Waltrip had to work harder and longer to get the team ready for the 2007 Nextel Cup season.
He pulled it off but got just two days at Daytona to bask in the accomplishment.
On the third day, his own car failed inspection when a suspicious substance was found in the Camry’s intake manifold. After two frenzied days of investigation, NASCAR determined it was a fuel additive and kicked out competition director Bobby Kennedy and crew chief David Hyder, who also was fined a record $100,000.
Waltrip, who was docked 100 points, insists he doesn’t know who tampered with his fuel and said NASCAR still hasn’t told him what the substance was. A person familiar with the investigation told the AP the substance was a property found in jet fuel; NASCAR said only it wasn’t jet fuel itself.
Although Waltrip said he and general manager Ty Norris still are trying to figure out who tampered with the fuel, he’s weary of discussing it.
“This was perhaps the stupidest thing that has ever been attempted, and we are going to find out what happened,” he said. “The cool thing for me is that we’re so determined to find out. But I am not going to talk about this every day. When I know what happened, I’ll let everyone know.”
Waltrip wants to talk instead about moving forward and salvaging the season.
His sponsors -- the lifeblood of any race team -- are sticking by him. Toyota officials rallied around him after he put all three cars in the 500.
“We’ll work with Michael to get to the bottom of this and help his organization move on,” said Lee White, general manager of Toyota Racing Development. “The way things started, certainly it was disappointing. But it’s not something that Michael can’t recover from.”
Waltrip made his first stand at Daytona. So embarrassed by the cheating scandal, he said he almost packed up his team and went home. Instead, he raced his way into the 500, persuaded to stay by his wife and NASCAR president Mike Helton.
“There was a time that I thought I was going to get sent home, and I told Mr. Helton that I understood if he wanted me to leave,” Waltrip said. “But I was allowed to stay, and it made me realize what a privilege it was to be there. It was all almost taken away from me, and when I stood out on pit road, I really realized how lucky I was to be allowed to be there.”
But there was little celebrating, and his presence didn’t sit well with everyone.
Rival drivers complained he got off too easy and should have been thrown out of the garage. Others questioned his sincerity when he apologized, and then there’s the issue of how much Waltrip knows about the cheating.
Waltrip maintains he was out of the loop and that someone on his race team took matters into their own hands.
Not everyone’s convinced.
“When the driver is the owner, he should have quite a bit of knowledge as to what’s going on, you would think,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. said. “It makes me want to kind of believe Michael a little bit when he says he was unaware of it. As a driver, I would take that for what it’s worth. But it’s hard to imagine as an owner that you wouldn’t know something about that.”
And so Waltrip’s primary goal for the season is not winning races but rather rebuilding his reputation.
“We can get those points back and win money to pay the fine, but the goal that’s been moved up is just gaining our credibility and integrity back so I can not shake my head in shame when I think about what happened in Daytona,” Waltrip said. “Time helps heal wounds obviously. If we are able to be upstanding citizens in the garage area, we’ll gain all that back.”