Waltrip says he has all he ever wanted

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- You see Michael Waltrip on the television screen, playing the fall guy in comedic commercials with his older brother, Darrell, or his teammate, Dale Earnhardt Jr.

He might be hawking a Domino's pizza or parts from NAPA, but whatever the gag, it usually involves Waltrip poking fun at himself.

Perhaps the self-deprecation comes from NASCAR fans and media who focus on his shortcomings, not his successes. Sure he won the Daytona 500 in 2001 and 2003, but it always will be pointed out that restrictor-plate wins are DEI's specialty. Nothing special about Waltrip, right?

Indeed, his level of success in 19 previous full-time seasons of Nextel Cup racing hasn't exactly been in line with those two-time Daytona 500 champ credentials.

Twelfth place is the best he's done in his career (twice, in 1994 and '95), and in '03 he notched his first multiple-victory season by also winning at Talladega, the other restrictor-plate track on the schedule.

But this offseason, Waltrip was thrown for a loop. He thought he'd seen everything there was to see in the sport, but that was before he was called into an office and given the news:

Dale Earnhardt Jr. would like to switch teams with you, Michael. And he'd like to do it this season, your last under the current contract with DEI.

"I didn't know it was an option," Waltrip said of the unique swap plan between him and NASCAR's biggest star. "It was so crazy, I kind of was in a daze about it for a couple days. I think it was something Dale Jr. wanted to do, and that's how I became a part of it."

Waltrip will start third Sunday in the Daytona 500, and nobody doubts he is a strong contender to win this race a third time. He certainly has the car and the drafting knowledge to be a contender, as well as a friend in Junior starting fifth and directly behind him on the grid.

It leads many to believe that Waltrip, Junior and draft-friendly rival Tony Stewart -- also up front -- will form a pack that could pull ahead of the field and stay out of the trouble that inevitably will strike farther back.

The thought of running out front at Daytona gets Waltrip's blood pumping faster. And while the rumor mill says that the swap was partly done to give DEI a legitimate reason to avoid renewing Waltrip's contract after '05, he looks at it as another opportunity with one of racing's best teams.

"I start every year thinking this is my final year with the team," Waltrip said. "So, honestly, I don't even worry about that."

Now 41, Waltrip has an aura that plainly suggests he's, "been there, done that." He knows where questions are going before they get there, and he isn't afraid to frolic at a moment's notice.

Since this is the week of the Daytona 500, the most famous stock-car race, it's obligatory that Waltrip be asked whether restrictor plates should be banned. Slowing down race cars on purpose, after all, gets many fans and drivers on a full rant.

Never mind that it's safety purposes that prompt NASCAR to slow the cars on its two superspeedways.

"People complain about anything," said Waltrip, his slight Kentucky drawl emphasizing each word. "They're going to have the Daytona 500 and the cars are going to have plates on them. Why wouldn't you like it? This is our biggest race. How dumb would you be to sit home and say, 'Oh, I hate plates.' So what. Good. Stay home then.

"People just get on my nerves with what they like and don't like; complaining. I don't know why all that happens, but I know that this is the Daytona 500 and there's going to be a lot of people turning on the TV and watching it, there's going to be a whole bunch of people standing around here in Daytona checking it out and there's going to be over-the-top exciting action and I'm going to be all in the middle of it."

Waltrip's in good spirits and a bit feisty, he said, because he just got done "hibernating," meaning he rested this offseason. Except, it's hard to say how much he really rested. An avid runner, Waltrip ran a marathon in his free time and was pleased to finish in less than four hours.

He says such athletic feats give him a mental edge when he's in his race car -- after all, sitting down on the job is always better than having to run.

Waltrip went to the Super Bowl in Jacksonville, and he shot a commercial with Junior in the Orange Bowl where the film crew put 100 people in a section and shot them cheering and jumping around, then moved them around the stadium twice in each section, giving the impression of a packed house.

"Those people had to do that at least a zillion times," he said.

But nothing surprised him more than the team swap, a move that still raises the eyebrows of other drivers in the garage area.

And Waltrip understands why. It is a big gamble -- on Junior's part, he stresses, not on his.

"I was just really happy," Waltrip said. "I knew my team needed a change to shake it up. I got it. I got everything I wanted, it worked well for me. And I think Junior's content. I think the story is about Dale Junior, as far as the crew swap, he just raced for the championship and won the Daytona 500 and made the swap. I hope to make it a story about me after this Daytona 500."

Waltrip has made it a point, whenever he has been asked about DEI's decision, to thank Dale Junior, owner Teresa Earnhardt and engine builder/DEI motorsports director Richie Gilmore.

He points out that these people know what they are doing and haven't lost their marbles.

"She's a great boss," he said of Teresa after Thursday's 150-mile qualifier. "She and Richie work well together. We had a one-two in our qualifying race today. And if you don't have all the resources it takes to build a race car, you're not going to see that no matter who is driving them."

And so Waltrip prepares for Sunday's race with a big grin on his face. After expecting great things in 2004 and coming up shockingly empty, he's at the wheel of a car that history says should win this weekend.

Whether he's back with DEI next season is irrelevant to this moment. Right now, Waltrip is on top of the world.

"I think that I'm happy that I'm happily married with a couple kids and my life is where it is today," he said. "I just need to win another Daytona 500 to make me happier."

Justin Hagey is motorsports editor at ESPN.com.