Bristol Motor Speedway special place for Waltrip

By Marvin Birchfield
STAR STAFF
mbirchfield@starhq.com

   It was nearly 11 years ago that the NASCAR community was still mourning the loss of two of its top stars, but for one driver it was a victory in the Busch race at Bristol that would change his life forever.
   Michael Waltrip has had a career of both ups and downs, but one of his most memorable moments was when he won the Budweiser 250 in 1993 where he proposed to his wife Buffy in victory lane.
   "My most memorable moment was definitely in 1993, when I proposed to my wife, and she said yes, so that was good," said Waltrip. "Then we did the first-ever memorial lap for Alan Kulwicki. I won the race and hadn't planned it, but I whipped the car around and went the other way just to say 'Alan, we miss you.' So that was a real special day to have all that emotion and win, then get engaged at the same time was pretty cool.
   "We're always thankful for that special time we had together."
   Always being one of the race favorites, the checker flag had eluded Michael until last year, in the fall, at the Food City 250, where he celebrated by attempting an unspectacular hand stand.
   "We marked this place on our list because of the success we had here last fall testing," said Waltrip. "We came here with the Busch car and won, and we came here and tested with the Busch and Cup car the preceding week here."
   Waltrip is a two-time winner in the Busch Series at Bristol, but has never won the Cup event at the world's fastest half-mile.
   Last fall Michael qualified a strong third for the Sharpie 500, but an accident on lap 87 put the Napa Chevrolet behind the wall with a 42th-place finish.
   "We were really good in the Cup race -- we qualified right up front and then we got wrecked," said Waltrip. "The car was strong and we wanted to take what we learned and build on that, and so far I think we're real pleased with our results."
   In 2004, it has not been a good season so far for Michael, as his best finish in the first four races was 23rd (four laps down), which came last week at Atlanta.
   "We thought we were ready to win the Daytona 500, and then we got flipped over," said Waltrip. "At Rockingham we had a really strong car and then broke a gear, and at Las Vegas we got crashed.
   "Atlanta we ran crappy, so we've had a little bit of everything come our way so far, but we're here at Bristol testing, and we can still yet accomplish all our goals in 2004."
   The biggest complaint of the year thus far has been the use of a softer tire compound that NASCAR has chosen, but the drop-off factor at BMS is not expected to be as much of an issue as it has been at other tracks.
   "The tires seem to be about the same at Bristol -- here, it is not aerodynamic sensitive like it was at Vegas," said Waltrip. "I think we seen the same type of racing at Rockingham and at Atlanta that we had in the past.
   "Here at Bristol we run the same type of set-ups as we do at Rockingham and Atlanta, and that's weird because the tracks are big. On the other hand we wouldn't set up at all like we would at a place like Vegas, so the tires were a bigger factor at Vegas, but not as big of a factor here."
   Michael is definitely looking forward to coming at Bristol, as he hopes a good run at Darlington this week so he can turn his string of bad luck around.
   "I'm just ready to get on with some good finishes. Last year at Darlington we finished fifth in the spring and had a real steady solid run all day long," said Waltrip. "We just need to get it flipped around and get things going."
   One of Waltrip's teammates, Dale Earnhardt Jr., has had a different kind of year this season with two early wins already, so Michael hopes the knowledge shared will spill over into some good results.
   "It's been cool seeing him be so successful, and we really work hard on sharing information and being on the same page," said Waltrip. "At Vegas we had a pretty decent car which we weren't going to win, but we were definitely a top ten car and he was out in left field.
   "Then at Atlanta it looked like we never even shared notes, because we're out in left-field and he wins. So it's hard to figure out sometimes."
   As far as Michael's feeling toward winning at Bristol, there's really not really many places that compare to the thrill of conquering the physically demanding oval.
   "It's just crazy, because people obviously have a deep passion for racing at Bristol whether it is the driver, teams, or fans," said Waltrip. "We won last fall here in our Aaron's Dream Machine, and I think that meant more to my guys who work on my race car than winning anywhere could. When you win at Bristol, it's very rewarding."