-- The debate is as old as motorsports: Does a driver win the race, or is it the car?
For Michael Waltrip, Sunday's victory in the Daytona 500 added $1.4 million to his career earnings and fodder for the argument that it's the machine, more than the man, behind his newfound success.
In 18 years of racing in NASCAR's top ranks, the Winston Cup series, Waltrip has started 535 races and won three. All three victories have come in the last 24 months, since he was hired to drive for Dale Earnhardt Inc. And all three victories have been earned at the same track -- Daytona International Speedway, where carburetor restrictor plates make it far more difficult to build a car that can outrun the rest.
Dominating at NASCAR's two restrictor-plate tracks -- Daytona and Talladega Superspeedway -- is a point of pride at DEI, the three-car team founded by the late stock-car champion.
After an evening celebrating his victory in the rain-shortened Daytona 500, Waltrip praised the work of his engine-builders and body-fabricators in constructing the car that carried him to victory in the sport's biggest race.
"Dale really understood the importance of having fast cars at Daytona and Talladega," Waltrip said this morning. "He wanted his plate cars to be fast. He wouldn't have it any other way. The boys at the shop understand that. It's part of working there. They're relentless in their pursuit of perfection when it comes to Daytona and Talladega."
But Waltrip chafed at suggestions that he's not capable of winning anyplace but Daytona, pointing to his nine career victories in NASCAR's Grand National series -- none of them on restrictor-plate tracks. And he vowed to devote the balance of the season to proving that he's capable of not only winning on high-banked short tracks and 1.5-mile ovals in the big leagues, but also mounting a serious run at the 2003 Winston Cup championship.
"I think that we'll win races in a lot of places," said Waltrip, 39. "I think I can do the job wherever we are."
And he mocked the notion that he has somehow fallen short behind the wheel, noting that he had won three of the last five Winston Cup races at Daytona (including the 2001 Daytona 500 and 2002 Pepsi 400).
"It takes me a little bit to get up and running," he said. "And until I get where I need to be, Daytona is all right."
Waltrip's Chevrolet was a bullet from the start Sunday, and he vaulted from fourth to first before drivers completed a single circuit around the 2.5-mile oval to lead the first 34 laps, surrendering the lead only to make a pit stop.
He ran near the front all soggy afternoon. And with an aerodynamic tug from the lapped car of teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr., whose own bid for the win was spoiled when a $2 part failed on his alternator, Waltrip blew past Jimmie Johnson to reclaim the lead. Four laps later, a downpour halted the action for a second time. And with no let-up in sight, NASCAR officials finally called the race 65 minutes later, bringing finality to what had become an anticlimactic event.
For Waltrip, this Daytona 500 was cause for unbridled celebration, unlike his 2001 victory, which was overshadowed by the death of Earnhardt, his car owner and friend, who was killed in a last-lap crash.
"That will never be considered a great race because of what happened," Waltrip said. "But I'm at peace with that. I will never close that chapter, and I'm thankful for that. I think God has placed on me a real consciousness of how I have gotten to this point, and that is just another piece of the story."
Of the three race teams that belong to the DEI stable, Waltrip's No. 15 was the team Earnhardt worked with most closely. And it struggled after his death. The team's performance dropped off. Crew members were working at cross-purposes. Rumors followed that Waltrip would lose his job and the sponsor, NAPA, might defect. And Waltrip felt at sea.
"There was nobody running the 15 team, basically," Waltrip said today. "You've got to have someone who says, 'This is my ship. I'm the captain. And this is how we're going to do it.' We didn't have that at the 15 car. We spent a lot of 2001 just floundering -- not being able to accomplish anything. We were lost."
That fall, DEI executive Ty Norris lured a gifted young mechanic, Richard "Slugger" Labbe, away from Robert Yates Racing, where he had been head of research and development for Dale Jarrett's No. 88 Ford. Norris told Labbe to run Waltrip's team "like you own it" and gave him all the legal resources in stock-car racing, including a 56-man engine department and a year-round division dedicated to building cars for NASCAR's four restrictor-plate races.
"After that first day I told the guys, 'You can either get behind me or get out the door,' " recalled Labbe, 34. "They all said they were committed."
Under Labbe's direction, a team of restrictor-plate specialists started building Waltrip's 2003 Daytona 500 car last July. Mindful that NASCAR planned to change the bodies of all makes of racecars in the coming year, Norris hired a half-dozen more fabricators, bringing the number of DEI employees to 275. With their help, Waltrip's Daytona 500 car went through five or six bodies in its search for aerodynamic perfection within NASCAR's new rules. And it was subjected to 400 hours of wind-tunnel tests.
Then it came down to luck.
Would the thousands of tiny parts and pieces that comprise a stock car's engine, suspension, and braking and electrical systems stay intact? With Waltrip running second, would the rain hold off until he could reclaim the lead? With Waltrip in the lead, would it rain hard enough for NASCAR officials to declare the race over?
During the second rain delay, Waltrip looked to the heavens and prayed it would.
"We would have probably won it anyway," said Waltrip, who led 68 of 109 laps. "But I didn't want to take that chance."