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Is Michael Waltrip just riding the wave, or does he really have things turning around?


Michael Waltrip: On a roll....at long last. But how long will it last? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   By Mike Mulhern

   This is shaping up as a year of big surprises, and one of the biggest has to be Michael Waltrip's rebound.
   It's been years, it seems, since Waltrip was last winning races. Remember those Daytonas with then teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr.?
   Well, that's ancient history.
   The last few years Waltrip has been struggling to make it as an owner-driver….really, really struggling.
   That seventh at wacky Daytona could have been something of a fluke, with the rain and untimely pit stops for rivals and the big crash.
   And that 15th at California wouldn't seem like much to write home about.
   But, given the problems several of the sport's bigger names are having, Waltrip comes into Sunday's Shelby 427 here at Las Vegas Motor Speedway seventh in the Sprint Cup standings.
   Is this bunch really turning the corner, or just riding a dream wave?
   Waltrip, ever the optimist, insists things have changed for the better. Maybe new crew chief Bootie Barker has been underrated. And maybe that Formula One dude, Steve Hallam, he just signed is making a difference. Between here and Martinsville later in March, all that should become quite clear.
    "Last week was a big challenge for our team," Waltrip says of California. "David Reutimann (his teammate) had run well at bigger tracks last year, but I have struggled at times on the bigger tracks. 
   "And all three cars (Marcos Ambrose is now a satellite part of the operation) ran well."
   Waltrip has a lot pinned on this season. He says he'll probably retire if he can't get things going again.
   His major sponsor for so many years, NAPA, has "paid a huge price for me to build this team into something that can be competitive.
   "When I left DEI in 2005, we had almost won a couple of races, we sat on the pole up at Pocono, and we were competitive.
   "But 2006, 2007 and 2008 all made people forget that I knew how to drive…because we were in the process of building a team -- and that's very difficult to do. 
    "I'm very cognizant of the fact that it's just two races into the season. But the Daytona 500 I thought I could win. And then at California I just prayed every day I wouldn't run last -- because it was that bad at Miami the last race of last year.
    "I did not have a clue at California. I was scared to death. I just knew I was going to run last. I was terrified.
   "Then our motor broke in practice."
   But once the race began, Waltrip was surprising.  "This time I think I passed more cars by lap five at California than I passed the last three years." 
   Sharing two hats? "When the owner was talking to the driver, the owner said 'We need to go faster.' And the driver said 'You all need to give me better stuff.'
    "I agreed with my driver, and we have improved our team. 
    "Now having those conversations with myself is something that is not unusual -- and generally there's more than just two people having them with me."
   Now that's the kind of Waltrip wit that may show things are indeed turning around.
   "Someone asked me 'What is the hardest part about starting a team?'
   "The hardest thing is having a plan and getting people to follow along with your plan," Waltrip says. "We really have been fragmented.
   "Now I feel we've got a group of people who are equally as talented and driven and focused….and coming together."
   When fellow team owner Bill Davis had to bite the bullet over the winter and sell his Cup team and move back to Arkansas, it was a seminal moment for many in this sport.
   "We were in Kansas last fall, and I hugged him," Waltrip said. "I told him 'I owe you a hug….This is a lot harder than I thought it was…and you are a much stronger man than I've been so far.
    "I draw inspiration from you, pushing through this for 20-some years.  I appreciate what you did to help me start down this road.'"

Waltrip Will Fail

He's been at this at the Winston Cup level since 1985 and that he's still here is astonishing because there's so little talent in him. He wasn't a very good team owner at the Nationwide level; that he's gotten off to a good start this year is startling, but he doesn't have the talent to sustain it.

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