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.
Waltrip celebrates his Daytona 500 win
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
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
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
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.
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