By Jeff Birchfield
STAR Staff
When Michael Waltrip showed up to test at Bristol Motor Speedway on Tuesday, he didn't bring just one ride. Instead, he brought both of his 800-horsepower hot rods.
Waltrip is planning double duty next week on the high banks, running the No. 99 Aaron's Dream Machine Chevy he owns in the Food City 250 Busch Series race on Friday night and the No. 15 NAPA Chevy he drives for Dale Earnhardt, Inc. in Saturday's Sharpie 500.
"The Busch team has been running well," said Waltrip as he prepares to go to Michigan this weekend as the defending champion of the Busch Series race there. "We've been close to winning a couple of races. We haven't been able to pull it off yet, but we're looking forward to going to Michigan and coming back to Bristol."
He will never be confused with older brother Darrell when it comes to being among those who count Bristol as his favorite place to visit. However, BMS has been just as eventful for Michael as it was for Darrell, a 12-time winner at the track. It was the site of where Michael miraculously survived a Busch Series crash in 1990.
BMS is also the place he proposed to wife Buffy in 1993. That is, after winning the Busch race and being the first driver to do a Polish victory lap in honor of fallen champ Alan Kulwicki, who died in a plane crash two days earlier off Island Road.
"We haven't had any luck here lately," said Waltrip, owner of 3 Winston Cup and 9 Busch Series wins. "We wrecked here in the spring and finished 7th or 8th here in the fall. We think we can win here. I have run well over the years. I'm not talking only about Friday night, but this is my first test in a Cup car in several years."
"We have put a lot of emphasis coming out of here with good finishes. The test has gone well. We are going down two different roads with the Busch and the Cup car. We are running faster times than we were in the spring and having a good time."
When asked what about the track he liked and disliked, Waltrip responded, "I like all the grandstands and all the people who love the event so dearly. Driving around Bristol by yourself is the most fun you can have.
It takes you back to when you were a kid starting out on all these high banks with a hot rod. It gets a little crowded, when you put all those other guys out there with you."
He admits the excitement at BMS would have him paying to watch, even if he wasn't racing.
"This place is electric," said Waltrip, winner of The Winston all-star race in 1996. "There are three or four races a year if I wasn't a driver, I still would attend. That would be Bristol at night, Richmond at night, The Winston at night, and of course, our most important race, the Daytona 500."
On the Winston Cup side, Michael is enjoying his best year, staying among the top seven in points all year long and scoring a second win in the Daytona 500. Still, he sees room for improvement.
"The first 15 to 18 races, we were inconsistent," said the former Dash Series champion.
"We still are bouncing around a little with our performance, but overall it has improved. We are more consistent and have been able to finish more often around the top ten. I'm pleased with everyone's effort and with the results as a whole."
Besides having great equipment at DEI, he has found the right chemistry with crew chief, Richard "Slugger" Labbe.
"Yeah, we work really well together," said Waltrip, who went 462 races before scoring a first official win at the 2001 Daytona 500. "We have a real understanding for each other. I tell him he's lucky all the time to have me. The set-ups (on the cars) are so different these days."
He joked, "Anything you had in the past won't apply. What I had in the past didn't work anyway, so I'm glad it all changed."
The Owensboro, Kentucky native has also made an effort to be in the best shape of his life. Standing 6-5, Waltrip has the build of a NFL receiver, slim and muscular at 210 pounds.
"I turned 40 this year and I had a goal of being able to lift more weights and run faster and weigh less," explained Waltrip, often criticized earlier in his career for a lack of focus. "I'm pretty dedicated to something if I decide I need to do it. So, I took that event and turned it into something good.
Couple that and to run as well as our NAPA Chevy has and it makes for pretty good times."