Congrats, thanks and I'm sorry

Mr. Michael Waltrip
Michael Waltrip Racing
Cornelius, N.C.

Dear Mike,

I think I can speak for a majority of NASCAR Nation in this note of congratulation, apology and gratitude.

Back in January, when Rick Hendrick was saying he'd be "very disappointed" unless all four of his drivers made the Chase and one of them won it, you weren't making such bold predictions about your two full-time drivers.

Nobody expected you to.

It will continue to hurt but not surprise you that few were taking Michael Waltrip Racing seriously. Maybe you knew where you were headed, but others didn't -- as usual. That's been the story of your life -- that Rudyard Kipling line about trusting yourself when all men doubt you.

You trusted others: Rob Kauffman as your business partner, and then Clint Bowyer and Scott Miller enough to hire them away from Richard Childress Racing as a driver and a competition director. And you continued to have faith in the ability of Martin Truex Jr.

You'd never made the Chase before. Now, here you are with both Bowyer and Truex in the playoffs. Furthermore, you didn't exactly sneak up on anybody. As the season progressed, it became clear that the fastest-rising team in NASCAR was Michael Waltrip Racing.

You wouldn't take much credit Saturday night at Richmond, after Bowyer had won the race to emphasize your success.

"In 2007, when we started this team, I made it all the way to March 'til I figured out I was broke," you said right up front to reporters at the track. "I met Rob in April. He bought half the team in October. Since then, we've just been making steady progress."

But the progress wasn't obvious to others until this year. So congratulations. It's been a longer, harder haul for you even than the public may realize.

Remember, you and I go way back. I was there when you won your first NASCAR national series race, in a little Daytona Dash car, at Atlanta. You were 19. Geez, it just hit me: That was 30 years ago.

First thing I noticed was that Darrell's baby brother had inherited an ample share of the Waltrip gift of gab. You spoke with the confidence of a big winner, right out of the gate. So it seemed reasonable, in 1982, that you were bound for the heights of Darrell's numbers.

It never quite worked out. The great rides just weren't there for you like they were for Darrell. He had Junior Johnson, you had Richard Bahre. He had Hendrick, you had Chuck Rider.

So the gab would serve you better than the racing itself. You became the darling of the TV camera crews during rain delays, and then a master pitchman in commercials, and a rapid-fire race commentator.

It took you 16 years of struggling, of insinuations and even questions about why you even bothered to go on racing, before Dale Earnhardt finally put you in a top-flight ride. You won for him right out of the box -- your first Cup win ever -- but it was the most terrible day of your life, because he died in Turn 4 at Daytona in the same moments you were taking the checkered flag.

You've told me since that you don't even remember the winner's interview from the Daytona 500 of 2001. You didn't know Dale was dead at that point. I can tell you that you took from my line of questioning that day that I -- and others -- didn't give you due respect as a driver, but that you knew what you were capable of.

It was not a pleasant interview. And then minutes later, when you learned the whole truth about Dale, you plummeted into a nightmare from which I don't think -- and you don't think -- you have ever completely recovered.

Somehow you sensed that the only way to ease the nightmare was to start a team, taking inspiration from Dale and the team he started that gave you a break at last.

Then in '07 when you started the team, frankly, I thought it all had fallen into your lap. You were a blank sheet of paper for Toyota's emergence into Cup, and your personality was a magnet for sponsorship -- but where would you go with this?

Remember our ongoing "Trojan Horse" debate at Talladega that spring? I'd written that your team was merely a Trojan Horse for Toyota, a way to get a foot in the door of Cup, learn the ropes and work the politics with a humble, upstart posture, then come with a bigger, better team in '08. I thought it would be Roger Penske. Turned out to be Joe Gibbs.

You said at a news conference at Talladega that spring that you'd taken "Trojan Horse" as a compliment until you looked it up. Then as you left the news conference you whispered to me, "I'll see you later," because we'd already planned to do your "Tradin' Paint" show together on Speed Channel. It was a verbal free-for-all, but I never felt bloodied, sure as I felt that your team ultimately wasn't going anywhere.

I apologize to you for that. I didn't know that your humility -- in many ways your greatest attribute, your wide-open personality notwithstanding -- would serve you so well. You didn't have the ego to force the issue on your own. You knew you needed help. You brought in Rob Kauffman.

With even deeper humility, for this year, you hired Bowyer, who once said on his radio while at RCR, "Michael Waltrip is the worst driver in NASCAR," to drive for you.

Now to the gratitude: We can feel it by taking the scenario from "It's a Wonderful Life" -- imagining what NASCAR would be like without Michael Waltrip. Sure, the numbers aren't big -- four Cup wins as a driver, although two of those were in the Daytona 500 -- but your presence has been more than numbers.

As my housekeeper, an Earnhardt-family fan to her core, put it the other day, "I like Michael Waltrip." Then she said it with emphasis: "I. Just. Like. Michael. Waltrip."

A lot of people like you. Not nearly enough have taken you seriously enough.

One of your strongest suits is the very blood and marrow of NASCAR racing: Your ability to attract and keep sponsors like no one else.

It was telling, a couple of weeks ago at Atlanta, when NASCAR president Mike Helton showed up at your announcement of a multiyear renewal with NAPA auto parts and Truex. Helton was there to thank you and NAPA, because it's rarer than rare nowadays that a company will commit to full-season sponsorships, not just partials.

NASCAR needs teams like yours. Badly. Helton was there to acknowledge that. And NASCAR Nation needs a different team on the horizon, something apart from the usual powers.

You have taken yourself seriously, yet taken it on the chin with dignity time after time from all who doubted you. Now, who knows who will win the Cup? All I know is the best feel-good story that could come out of this Chase: a championship for either driver from Michael Waltrip Racing.


Ed Hinton