His darkest hour
Can Waltrip rescue public image after cheating probe?
Posted: Wednesday February 14, 2007 10:34PM; Updated: Thursday February 15, 2007 12:18AM
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Despite going winless for the past 3 1/2 years on the Nextel Cup tour, Michael Waltrip has remained one of the sport's most popular and recognizable drivers. A marketing machine, he's known for bending over backwards for his sponsors, hawking everything from furniture to auto parts on TV.
Well, try marketing anything to do with Waltrip now. After the penalties that came down hard on his team Wednesday, the 43-year-old finds himself backed into a corner, his career on the line; and that's not a situation likely to change anytime soon.
After someone on his team filled his intake manifold with an illegal substance, NASCAR discovered the changes in pre-qualifying inspection, confiscated the car and wasted no time taking Waltrip's team to the woodshed. The penalties make Tuesday's punishments look like a slap on the wrist; Waltrip, himself, got fined $100,000, lost 100 driver and owner points and will be forced to run the rest of Speedweeks in a backup car. Not only that, but the two most important people in the organization were escorted out of the speedway Tuesday: Crew chief David Hyder and team director Bobby Kennedy, suspended indefinitely with no idea when they might be allowed to return. When Hyder IS allowed back, he probably won't be working with the No. 55 team; rumors were rampant he would be fired immediately following the Daytona 500.
Of course, throughout the ordeal, Waltrip has tried to maintain his innocence, claiming it was the actions of individuals -- and not the team -- through which blatant cheating came about. But it's hard to hold Waltrip blameless. I'll never forget the interview with him on TV immediately after the infractions were discovered; the man was so nervous, he couldn't even find time to mention his sponsors, a Waltrip staple if there ever was one after 20 years on tour. Whether that was just nerves about the situation or an attempt to cover up something more, we'll never know; but as the car owner, it's hard to believe the man knew nothing about the types of modifications being applied to his car.
A second-year owner-driver with a first-year manufacturer, Waltrip and the No. 55 team came to the speedway smelling of desperation. After going through an epic struggle in 2006, where Waltrip went without a Top 10 finish in the Cup for the first time since his rookie season of 1986, the pressure was on to perform and prove he still had what it took to be competitive for both longtime sponsor NAPA and new partner Toyota. What was actually put in the engine that was so illegal is the biggest matter of debate within the garage; the rumor is jet fuel, although NASCAR denies that's the substance. No matter what it ends up being, the bottom line is as clear as the liquid NASCAR discovered. This was a blatant violation designed to increase horsepower and performance out of the engine.
"It's basically like an athlete using steroids," said a friend of mine after the penalties were announced.
I couldn't agree more. In the immediate aftermath, I couldn't help but envision Waltrip as one of those stick-and-ball athletes past his prime, succumbing to the pressure of performance-enhancing substances in an attempt to do anything to recapture past glory. Now, the two-time Daytona champion is all but out of the 500, preparing to leave Speedweeks with a negative point total, a DNQ and a loss of integrity that'll take months to gain back.
As for Toyota, this marks the high point of what's turning into a nightmare Speedweeks. At this point, only two of its eight cars are locked into the field, and none of the teams on the outside are showing enough speed to overwhelm their competition in the Duels. If there's one thing Jim Aust has learned, it's that his programs have a long, uphill battle ahead; now, they have to deal with the additional PR backlash of cheating.
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