This is a fine line that Michael Waltrip is walking at Dale Earnhardt Inc., the one between company man and indentured servant.
With his second Daytona 500 victory in his past three tries on the books, Waltrip is paying back Dale Earnhardt for whatever prescience the seven-time NASCAR Winston Cup champion had when he hired the career journeyman and told him he would win in his race cars.
After his victory in the shortest Daytona 500 in history Sunday, Waltrip was quick to invoke the memory of Earnhardt.
"Dale might have been the only one big enough in this world to get me this ride," said Waltrip, who was 0 for 462 in his Cup career before winning the 2001 Daytona 500 in his star-crossed debut for Dale Earnhardt Inc. It was, of course, the race in which Earnhardt was fatally injured in the final corner of the last lap.
Waltrip said he now is "at peace" with what happened on Black Sunday, that his victory in the Pepsi 400 at the Daytona International Speedway in July allowed him to accept that chapter in his life.
But Waltrip also made it clear that he and the No. 15 team are more than just a drafting partner or "guardian angel" for Dale Earnhardt Jr., the other half of the DEI/Chevrolet Monte Carlo duo, which has won seven of the past nine Cup plate races.
"You know, I think people that are saying that Dale Jr. helped me [last Sunday] are missing . . . that's not correct," said Waltrip, after recounting the sequence that pushed him past race leader Jimmie Johnson. "That's not the proper way to state what happened. It turned out that he [Junior] helped me, but it was not premeditated. I just took advantage of a situation."
It is fitting that all three of Waltrip's Cup victories have been scored at Daytona, where Earnhardt embellished his legend with a record 34 victories.
Johnson, of the rival Hendrick Motorsports camp, said he knew he was in trouble during the caution period, when he detected a series of hand signals between Waltrip and Earnhardt.
But Waltrip said no matter what it looked like to Johnson, or from the main grandstand or the press box, this was not scripted.
"We didn't talk about it," Waltrip said. It was "just circumstantial that it worked out."
All carburetor restrictor plates and reduced fuel cells have been removed, meaning "the real" Winston Cup season will get under way at the North Carolina Speedway this weekend.
That's always the scenario coming off Daytona. But the offseason introduction of NASCAR's extensive "aero-matching" rules package among the four manufacturers has heightened anticipation of what we will see during Sunday's Subway 400 at The Rock, and beyond.
Perhaps no manufacturer has more at stake than Pontiac, whose 2003 Grand Prix hardly rocked the house during the rain-shortened Daytona 500. Rookie Jack Sprague gave Pontiac its highest finish: 14th. And Pontiacs led only two of the 109 laps -- one each by Mike Skinner and Ricky Craven.
Meantime, Pontiac's showcase team and driver Johnny Benson exited Daytona with a 19th-place finish. Recall, however, that Benson scored his breakthrough Cup victory at Rockingham last fall. While the car that won that race remains intact at the team's shop in Concord, N.C., crew chief James Ince is eager to turn the new Pontiac loose.
The 1.017-mile Rockingham layout is considered a downforce track.
"At Daytona, the cars are so close now that you can be off a little bit, but the templates can kind of keep you in line," Ince said. "But when you go to Rockingham, it all falls back on the team. We're going to know this week pretty much where we stand for the rest of the season."
SRO at Texas
Texas Motor Speedway recorded the earliest sellout in the seven-year history of its NASCAR Winston Cup race Wednesday at noon, when Jason Wargo of Alsip, Ill., purchased the final tickets for individual seats to the Samsung/RadioShack 500 on March 30.
Infield standing-room-only tickets for the race will remain on sale through race day.
TMS has sold each of its 154,861 seats since joining the Winston Cup series in 1997. Last year, the event did not sell out until late February. . . .
Jaques Lazier, sidelined for almost one year by back injuries, will return to Team Menard starting with the Indy Racing League's season-opening Toyota Indy 300 at Homestead-Miami Speedway on March 2.
Brazilian rookie Vitor Meira, who won the pole for the season-ending Chevy 500 at Texas Motor Speedway in September, will continue with the team and with Cheever Racing as a test driver. . . .
Michael Schumacher, driving the Ferrari he used to win a record-tying fifth Formula One world driving championship last season, was quickest in preseason testing at Imola, Italy, on Tuesday.