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Waltrip has driven No. 15 car since '01

Michael Waltrip Waltrip

LOUDON, N.H. -- Two-time Daytona 500 champion Michael
Waltrip
will not return next season after five years with Dale
Earnhardt Inc.

"It was a totally mutual decision between me and the company,"
Waltrip said Friday at New Hampshire International Speedway, where
he'll race Sunday in the New England 300. "It's sad to say that
I'm not going to be driving for DEI anymore."

The 42-year-old driver said the decision came after several
months of stops and starts. He said one of the reasons he decided
to leave was uncertainly over the company's direction. Waltrip is
delighted to have Tony Eury Jr. as his crew chief, and would
certainly consider taking him to another team.

"I was hoping that I could have Tony Jr. back again," he said.
"I was never told I couldn't have him, but was never told I
could."

The younger brother of three-time NASCAR champion Darrell
Waltrip got all four of his career victories driving for the team
founded by the late Dale Earnhardt and now headed by his widow,
Teresa.

Waltrip's first victory came in 2001, when he crossed the finish
line at Daytona International Speedway moments after The
Intimidator was killed in the fourth turn while trying to finish
third behind Waltrip and son Dale Earnhardt Jr.

The departure of Waltrip could cost the team continuing
sponsorship with NAPA Auto Parts. Still, DEI vice president Richie
Gilmore said in a statement that the company is talking to NAPA
about extending its deal.

NAPA has been Waltrip's only DEI sponsor, and he has been its
most recognizable spokesman. Waltrip believes the company might go
with him to another ride.

"NAPA obviously has a lot invested in me and a lot invested in
DEI," he said. "They were hoping there was some way we could stay
together."

Waltrip has been the most entertaining pitchman in NASCAR for
several years. Like most drivers, he routinely drops the names of
several sponsors into interviews, but does it with a sense of humor
others seem to lack. He and his brother also have a long-running
comedy routine in which the retired Darrell is constantly
disappointed when Michael refuses to let him drive his
Aaron's-sponsored Busch series car.

But for all his commercial success, the younger Waltrip wants to be known more for his driving. He just doesn't know where he'll be
working.

"We've talked to a lot of people about what next year might
look like," he said. "There are no real offers, just people
interested in what I might do.

"I want to get in a car I can believe I can win with, like the
one I got out of."

He refused to criticize Teresa's handling of the team.

"Dale and Teresa gave me an opportunity with a winning
organization," Waltrip said earlier in the day in a statement
issued by DEI. "My professional relationship with DEI is ending,
but my personal relationships have ties that are deep-rooted."