Winning unrestricted, a Waltrip goal
by Pete McCole

March 30, 2003

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If you look at the Winston Cup points standings heading into tomorrow’s Samsung/Radio Shack 500 at Texas Motor Speedway you might see a name you didn’t expect to see – Michael Waltrip.

Michael Waltrip celebrates his Daytona 500 win

Waltrip, currently 4th in points, is enjoying his best season ever. Since 1997, he’s never been higher than 10th in the points going into the seventh race of the season.

Seeing Waltrip in the top five at this stage of the season is a bit of a surprise, especially for a driver who’s only success has seemed to come at restrictor-plate tracks, where he has scored his only point victories.

This weekend Waltrip will face his toughest challenge yet, trying to notch his first win on a non-restrictor-plate track on the high banks of Texas Motor Speedway.

Although his best finishes at Texas have been a pair of ninth-place showings, Waltrip is optimistic about his chances heading into Sunday’s race.

"We feel good about our efforts that we'll take to Texas,” Waltrip said. “Our cars have been really good. We were good at Las Vegas. We feel good about our set-up and about our thinking.”

Waltrip has managed to notch three top-five finishes this season, but has also had his share of frustration, finishing 19th at Rockingham and 27th at Atlanta.

Take away those two sub-par performances, along with his 25th-place showing last weekend at Bristol, and Waltrip would be leading the standings, rather than trailing leader Matt Kenseth by 149 points.

"We didn't expect to run bad at Atlanta,” Waltrip said. “That's been a really good track for me over the years. In addition, we didn't expect to run bad at Rockingham. We didn't perform very well at either one of those places. We think things could be a lot better.”

Brimming with confidence after his third-place finish at Las Vegas, Waltrip believes his team is capable of success at any track, not just Daytona.

“Our performance at Vegas was right on target,” said Waltrip. “We felt like we could be really good at any type of track, whether it be flat, banked, or whatever. We went to Darlington and had a good run there. We had a fast car but just ran out of laps. All in all, it's been okay.”

“I've always felt that no one could do it better than me at a restrictor plate track. For many years, I just didn't have the cars to do it with. Now I've got a car that's awesome. It's probably the best car there is out there. With that and my knowledge of the draft and what it takes to be successful at a place like Talladega, I just think it's a real good combination for me."

Much of Waltrip’s success can be attributed to crew chief Richard “Slugger” Labbe, who came on board late last season.

"Our goal was to be in the top 10, so to be 4th in the points is definitely better than we thought.” Labbe said, “It's a step in the right direction, that's for sure.”

"The thing I've got going with Michael is that he's an awesome race car driver. He's been doing this a lot longer than I have. I've used his wisdom and knowledge to help me get better also. So, if he sees something out there and he knows it's going to help us, I stick behind him. And he sticks behind me. We don't point fingers and cuss and fight at each other. If you do, it just destroys the team. So we try to work together and do this together."

Waltrip agrees it’s more fruitful to get along with his crew chief, rather than challenge Labbe’s every call.

“That's what that word 'chemistry' is all about,” Waltrip said. “It's almost like having blind faith. If that's what he (crew chief) said, then that's the way we're going to go. I think that's the best way to operate if you want to have long-term success.

If you want to overrule somebody and be in charge, you might have success then. But to be good throughout the whole season, you need to have comradery and mutual respect."

In addition to the right chemistry between driver and crew chief, Labbe says the introduction of the new Chevrolet Monte Carlo for 2003 has been a big help as well.

"The 2003 Monte Carlo is just a better balanced race car than we had last year.” Labbe said, “Last year we qualified really well. But when you take the tape off the grills, we had no downforce. The Chevrolets were really hurting. This year, we don't have that problem. We have a better-balanced race car with a ton of downforce. It's just a matter of us learning the new car and getting it balanced right.

We're working hard going to wind tunnels and making sure we bring the right car to the right race track. But giving Michael a car that's competitive every week compliments him."

Winning the Daytona 500 tasted sweet for Waltrip, but a win at Texas Motor Speedway would go a long way to putting the icing on the cake and proving the veteran is more than just a superspeedway ace.

The author can be contacted petem@autoracing1.com

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