No. 15 team picking up speed

Michael Waltrip and the No. 15 Chevrolet team ended 2003 as one of the hottest squads in NASCAR's Cup circuit.

"We started 2004 thinking we'd be championship contenders," said Waltrip, acknowledging just how hot they had been.

Then came a wreck at Daytona. And a wreck at Rockingham. At Vegas? You guessed it, another wreck. Three races, three wrecks. It wasn't the kind of start a championship contender would have.

"After six races of 2004 we were 38th in points," Waltrip said. "And in dire straights."

Waltrip and Co. didn't get heated. They never started blaming each other. And as a result, though they still seek their first victory of the season, they come to DEI's playground -- Daytona International Speedway -- ranked 18th and having climbed four positions in just one week.

Championship contenders? Not right now. Championship potential? Waltrip thinks so. He starts on the outside pole position in Saturday night's Pepsi 400, and says his bid to crack the top 10 within the next 10 races begins now.

"I think we have a shot," Waltrip said. "I've crunched all the numbers and quite frankly it's a stretch, but not impossible. If one of those races that went so wrong early in the year didn't, but unfortunately it did. That's what inspires people that are competitors to dig down. When you can make it work with the numbers, you don't give up."

Waltrip has a ton of momentum. In the last six races, his has been one of the top teams in the Nextel Cup Series. Add to that the fact he's in Daytona, now. A place where he's won every year since 2001.

But Waltrip knows it won't be easy.

"You've got to be perfect," Waltrip said. "You have to be as good as you can be every lap. You can't make any mistakes. Nothing can go wrong with the car. The pit crew has to do their job on pit road. The driver has got to be game-on from the time the flag drops. There's a lot of pressure you put on yourself to make sure you don't make any mistakes and you make all the right moves.

"One wrong drafting move late in the race can take you from the top two or three cars to 20th. You can't recover from that. You just have to be smart and not make any mistakes."

The team has prepared extra for this weekend. Not just because they know they have a legitimate shot to win. But because they understand that if they want to achieve the greater goal, the goal of finishing top 10 in 10 races, they have to be prepared for everything.

"Over the last six races, we've been a top five car in the points," Waltrip said. "You average those together with the ones in the middle and we're 18th in points. We have our work cut out for us. It might be a bit of a stretch to think we'll make the top 10. With runs like we've had at Charlotte and Sears Points, we're certainly geared to that and believing it can become a reality. If we make the top 10, we'd have to be considered a team to be reckoned with in those final 10 races."

He can say that with confidence because he's watched his team pull together after coming out of the gates as one of the worst teams in the series.

"We weren't able to run right," Waltrip said of the early struggles. "Instead of pointing fingers at one another, we decided we had to do something with the cars. We had to change them. We test them every day at the wind tunnel for aerodynamics sleekness and downforce.

"Slugger ... he's a car guy. He's a genius when it comes to cars. He knows every corner and twist to a race car. He knew how to change them from the way they were to the way they are now. Richmond was the first race for a new body, a new aerodynamically balanced body. It was the first race for a new engine combination that Richie Gilman and those guys put together.

"We've run it ever since then. With the exception of the wreck at Pocono, we haven't been out of the top 10. It's real rewarding to see a team doing an about-face and not just ask the question, 'How'd that happen?' and people say, 'I don't know.' We know what we did and why it happened."

And they know much more is possible. Starting this weekend.

"There isn't any time," Waltrip said. "We started several weeks ago. Every race is important."

Rupen Fofaria is a freelance writer living in Chicago and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at rfofaria@espnspecial.com.