DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Before the start of his 30th and final Daytona 500, two-time winner Michael Waltrip said that he just wanted to show the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series field that he “still had it” one last time.
After 500 miles on Sunday afternoon, Waltrip climbed from his No. 15 Aarons Toyota and smiled.
“Mission accomplished,” he said.
It certainly was for the 53-year-old from Owensboro, Kentucky, whose two Daytona 500 wins came in 2001, when he won the race over Dale Earnhardt Inc. teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr., and in 2003, when he lead the most laps and benefited from a rain storm that forced NASCAR to call the event complete just past the halfway point.
This time, Waltrip started the day 30th on the grid and laid back quietly for much of the afternoon.
His hope was to avoid the mayhem that had characterized the remainder of Speedweeks, and he did so all day long, narrowly avoiding crashes at lap 128 and lap 142 that damaged more than half the field in their wake.
That allowed him to be in position on the race’s final run, and though he lost the draft with roughly 20 laps to go, Waltrip climbed back up through the field as the leaders ran out of fuel one-by-one.
He ultimately finished eighth as the highest-running Toyota driver, notching his 10th-career top-10 finish in The Great American Race despite the mayhem that tried to find him all day long.
“I was in the middle of every wreck it seemed like … but we were really able to sneak our way through when Ryan Blaney had his problem off of turn four, and that kept us going,” Waltrip said after the race. “They wrecked in front of me and behind me and I was the only one to get through!”
Waltrip then had to worry about saving fuel, just like so many others in the closing laps, and managed to do just enough to make it to the end.
“It just was right on it,” he said of his fuel mileage. “My team told me that we were two laps short and I needed to do everything that I could to save. We lost the draft, which was unfortunate because at the end of the race I had a really good handling car and we were passing people. It just happened to be one of those deals where it was right on the edge of fuel when we went back to green.”
“People were saving and people were pushing hard and when that happens you’re gonna have a mix-up at the end … and we certainly saw that.”
With his 133rd — and final — top 10 finish at the Cup level in his 784th start, Waltrip now turns his attention back to the FOX broadcast booth, where he will be a part of both the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series and NASCAR XFINITY Series race-day crews for the remainder of the season’s first half.
But at least one more time, Sunday was a day where he could put the helmet on and savor the pomp, circumstance and action of the driver’s seat, even if he’s not necessarily one for the spotlight in such a situation.
“It was just a fun day,” Waltrip said. “I don’t like it to be about me … but today it’s been a chance just for people to say ‘We appreciate you and you did a good job for 30 years and we’re glad you get to go out on your own terms.’”
About the Writer
Jacob Seelman is the Managing Editor of Race Chaser Online and creator of the Motorsports Madness radio show, airing at 7 p.m. Eastern every Monday on the Performance Motorsports Network.
Seelman grew up in the sport, watching his grandparents co-own the RaDiUs Motorsports NASCAR Cup Series team in the 1990s.
The 23-year-old is currently studying Broadcast Journalism at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, S.C., and is also serving as the full-time tour announcer for the Must See Racing Sprint Car Series.
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