Waltrip refuses to write off season

Michael Waltrip Waltrip

When Dale Earnhardt Inc. decided to swap the crews on its two premier cars, driver Michael Waltrip was fired up. Tony Eury Jr. was coming into his own as a crew chief, Waltrip believed, and he couldn't wait to see if the crew could do for Waltrip what it did for its old driver -- Dale Earnhardt Jr.

The last five races of the season haven't sent Waltrip in that direction. Throw in the fact that this is the last year Waltrip will be with DEI, and it seems apparent that Waltrip won't be able to realize the benefits of a championship-caliber crew.

Before the first green flag dropped on the year, Waltrip sat down with Eury Jr. to talk about goals for the year. One topic that came up: commitment. With Waltrip being a constant subject of Silly Season rumors and DEI obviously not showing any problem with switching teams around, Waltrip wanted to know that he was going to be teamed with Eury Jr. and Co. long enough to develop some chemistry.

"I'm your guy until the last race of 2005," Eury Jr. assured the Kentucky native.

Though the team got off to a slow start, the chemistry quickly formed and a run of strong finishes sent the team climbing from as low as 30th (after race No. 6) to as high as 14th (after race No. 15). But the good times have just as quickly come to a halt. A combination of not hitting the right setup and being in the wrong place at the wrong time has sent the team diving back down the rankings -- where, for now, it's perched at 19th.

The bid for making the playoffs went into a tailspin starting in Sonoma, Calif., on June 26. Waltrip couldn't get a good grip on the road course most of the day and, after spinning in the S-turn just after starting to make up some ground, he was unable to work a finish higher than 22nd.

Doubt crept into his mind then, but why would Waltrip -- driving a DEI car -- ever show concern before heading to Daytona? The team was able to put the road race disappointment behind it, anticipating a strong, confidence-building run at the track where Waltrip has scored three of his four career victories.

But at Daytona, Waltrip had a tire go flat -- and at the very moment he realized what had happened, he felt the beating from behind as Jeff Burton tried to bump draft with Waltrip. The 15 Chevy wrecked and Waltrip left Daytona with a 40th-place finish.

That's when the doubt really set in.

"I'm just upset for my team," Waltrip said. "Tony Jr. and them deserve so much. They put Dale Jr. on the map. He's a good enough race car driver to take advantage of it. I hope I am, too."

Waltrip wouldn't get a chance the next week in Joliet, Ill., either. For the third straight race, he met with bad luck. Running near the top 10, Waltrip felt another tire go down and hit the outside wall, crippling his Chevy and taking him out of the race. He finished 36th.

"We were working on it, just kept having a little bit of tire trouble here and there," Waltrip said. "The left front would be flat one time, the right rear would be blistered another and then the right front blew out. There is really no trend there, just [another] bad day."

Waltrip dropped to 19th in the points and wasn't shy about his doom-and-gloom attitude after the race.

"It stinks because we got a good team and that pretty much writes off a chase bid," he said. Not one for getting down on himself, though, he let a grin creep back onto his face and said, "But by God we can still win some races."

The team headed for Loudon, N.H., a little taken aback. It wasn't just the run of poor finishes. Waltrip had just announced that he would leave DEI after the 2005 season. Waltrip, convinced his playoff bid had been halted, wanted to make sure that if he made the announcement he would still be a contender for victories. So he sat down, again, with Eury Jr.

"You told me when we started this year that you were going to be my guy until the last race of 2005," Waltrip said. "I want to tell you in 2006 I am probably going to go somewhere else, so are you still going to be my guy until the last race of the year?"

Despite the rash of struggles and the points standings fall, Eury Jr. wasn't through with this season, either.

"We can win races, lead a lot of laps and be a part of this story in the second half [of the year]," Eury Jr. said. "I'm your guy, we are going to do this together and improve on our performance in the first half of the season."

Two races have passed since that conversation, and the results have been a 17th-place finish with a poor car and a 26th-place finish with a fantastic car. At Loudon, Waltrip could hardly steer because he said the car was pushing so badly. Eury Jr. and the crew worked on it constantly and, by race's end, Waltrip had a run where he passed more than 10 cars to seal a top 20.

The finish dropped the team to 20th in the standings, but Waltrip was still happy.

"I am real proud of the effort, and I am real proud of the job everyone did to take a bad day and turn it into an average day," he said. "You won't get in trouble if you finish 17th now and then, as long as you back it up with a top five."

The next weekend at Pocono Raceway it looked like that top five was within reach. Waltrip had a strong car all day and ran as high as third. With five laps to go, he was running eighth and trying to pass Ford driver Greg Biffle. With the way things had been going, it couldn't have been too surprising to Waltrip that Biffle would cut a tire at that very moment, lose control of his car and run into Waltrip. The wreck dropped Waltrip to a 26th-place finish.

And if losing a shot at a sorely needed top five wasn't bad enough, the car that lay crumpled up on the track was the same one the crew intends to take to Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the upcoming Allstate 400 at the Brickyard (Aug. 7).

"It's a tough break because we had a fast car and we were going to be around at the end for a good top five," Waltrip said. "We just got caught up in Biffle's incident when he slid up into us. Things like that happen."

Having written off the playoffs and endured this string of disappointing finishes, the team has committed itself to staying positive every Monday to work for a possible victory the following Sunday.

"Sometimes, all you can do is pack up, go home and say, 'We'll get 'em next week,'" Waltrip said.

That attitude was evident as Eury Jr. looked at his wrecked car and managed a smile.

"This is going to be the car we run at Indy so we will go home, put a rear clip on it, and fix some of the body to get it turned around for the next race."

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