DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) – Michael Waltrip is back where his season soured so suddenly, returning to Daytona International Speedway on Thursday and still trying to rebound from what he called “the worst thing that happened to any team ever.”
Waltrip has qualified for three of 17 races this year, a disappointing start that followed an inauspicious opening week at Daytona.
Waltrip’s Toyota failed inspection here in February when a suspicious substance was found in his intake manifold. After two frenzied days of investigation, NASCAR determined it was a fuel additive and kicked out two of Waltrip’s team members – competition director Bobby Kennedy and crew chief David Hyder.
Hyder was fined a record $100,000, and Waltrip was docked 100 points.
The team bounced back to make the season-opening Daytona 500, but Waltrip finished 30th. Things went downhill from there, as his three-car startup team spent nearly as many races at home as on the track.
“I’ve never experienced anything like this year where I haven’t been able to qualify and my other cars haven’t been qualifying and we just don’t show any sign of any solid foundation to build upon,” Waltrip said. “It’s been really tough. It’s made it hard to smile at times.”
Waltrip finished a season-best 10th at Michigan last month, an encouraging sign that followed months of frustration.
“I hate to look back,” Waltrip said. “I’m not made that way. A lot of times if you look back you’ll decide it ain’t worth going forward. I know the rules infraction that we had at Daytona was probably the worst thing that happened to any team ever. It just put a whole bunch of doubt into what we were doing and who we were right off the bat.
“It was unfortunate because someone tried to do something they shouldn’t have – unbeknownst to me or any of the people that run our team. We dismissed those people and we’ve moved on.”
Waltrip parted ways with Hyder in late April, but said Thursday that the investigation is ongoing.
“We pieced together all the information we could get and we were able to feel comfortable with who did it,” Waltrip said. “We don’t know what it was. We just have circumstantial evidence that implicates a couple of guys, and they’re no longer with us now. We’ve done all that we can do and cooperated with NASCAR in every way we could.
“We still have an ongoing investigation about what it was and where it came from in hopes that if we find out the answer to those two questions we’ll be able to positively identify who did it. But as far as today, the circumstances have led us to believe that we’ve separated ourselves from the people that were responsible.”
Waltrip believes the Daytona problems carried over into the rest of the season.
“If you have to pick one thing that has hurt us the most it’s been that,” he said. “It hurt us from a reputation standpoint. It hurt our competitiveness because I didn’t have a crew chief after that. And it also hurt us monetarily because obviously not making races and getting penalized money and the things that all resulted from that infraction are still part of who I am today.”
Waltrip, a two-time Daytona 500 winner, spent 18 months leading Toyota’s venture into NASCAR’s top series. He lured 1999 Cup champion Dale Jarrett and big-time sponsors NAPA and UPS. He also had the flexibility to form a third team with rookie David Reutimann.
They have two top-20 finishes between them, leaving plenty of room for improvement. They also have hope the three-car team will remain intact for next season.
“Everyone in Toyota is optimistic about the future and the gains they’ve made,” Waltrip said. “We’re going forward in a very positive direction with our teams looking a whole lot like they do now. That’s all you can really ask for.”