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A sad, then glad day for Waltrip
After taking responsibility for team's cheating, he qualifies for 500.
By BRANT JAMES
Published February 16, 2007
DAYTONA BEACH - Drawn and emotional, Michael Waltrip trudged into the Daytona International Speedway media center Thursday and said he was "ready to bear all responsibility" for someone apparently inserting a fuel additive into his No. 55 Toyota.
"What took place was the action of an individual or individuals and not the reflection of our team or sponsors or our manufacturer," said Waltrip, adding that he considered not running Thursday in the two 150-mile qualifiers.
"I just felt like there would be a cloud over whatever I accomplished today because of what had happened."
But race he did - at the behest of wife and car owner Buffy and in a backup car - right into a spot in Sunday's Daytona 500, finishing eighth in the 150-miler won by Tony Stewart. Waltrip's main car had been confiscated.
Advancing among 10 drivers who, like Waltrip, had to qualify on time was Boris Said, plus Mike Wallace and Joe Nemechek in the second 150-miler.
Then, as if the week's spate of inspection violations, fines and suspensions weren't enough, the quarter panels on Jeff Gordon's winning car from his qualifier were found to be an inch low, and he was sent to the back of the pack for Sunday's start.
Vice president of competition Robin Pemberton said he was "100 percent certain" it stemmed from an improperly installed shock fastener. He said the situation was "fairly unsafe" and offered a "marginal if any advantage." Gordon, however, was able to get a last-lap pass and a win.
He will start the 500 in 42nd because the final spot is reserved for the past champion's provisional - in this case Dale Jarrett. There would be no further penalties for the unintentional infraction, Pemberton said.
On Wednesday, Waltrip was docked 100 driver points, his team 100 owner points and crew chief David Hyder fined $100,000 and suspended indefinitely with competition director Bobby Kennedy as NASCAR issued some of its heaviest fines ever.
"We still haven't got anybody to fess up to doing it," Waltrip said of the fuel violation discovered after Sunday's time trials.
Waltrip said he regretted hiring people with questionable character but was the victim, having been robbed of the thrill of getting his three-car Cup program to NASCAR's biggest race. Michael Waltrip Racing includes former series champion Jarrett and Zephyrhills native David Reutimann, all of whom later qualified for the season opener.
With Hyder and Kennedy gone for a "very long" time, NASCAR's Pemberton said, Waltrip was able to insulate himself from further culpability, even though he, like most owners, claims to micromanage his organization.
"I've been in every meeting, I've been there every step of the way, ensuring the integrity of our team, or I thought I was ensuring that," Waltrip said.
So how didn't he know?
A driver likely doesn't know if cheating is occurring unless he's "very involved with the team," said Robbie Loomis, former crew chief and Petty Enterprises executive vice president of racing operations.
"There's a fine line there because when the driver is the owner, he should have quite a bit of knowledge as to what is going on, you would think," said former Waltrip teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr.
But he added, "A lot of times, crew chiefs don't tell the drivers (about cheating). The less people that know about it, the better. It makes me want to kind of believe Michael a little bit when he says he was unaware of it."
Scott Eggleston, with whom Waltrip won the Daytona 500 in 2001, will serve as crew chief. No crew members will be fired before an investigation is completed, Waltrip said.
Lee White, senior vice president of Toyota Racing Development, said Toyota is allowing Michael Waltrip Racing to handle the investigation while making it clear the company will not condone such image problems.
"I know they're trying to understand every detail," he said. "And from what I understand, they apparently found something in the trailer and took it immediately to NASCAR and gave it to them. They've been very forthright with everything they find."
Information from Times wires was used in this report.