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Waltrip not approaching Daytona 500 as last race

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — As Michael Waltrip prepared for what could be the final Daytona 500 of his career, he took exception when someone described him as "a pretty good driver."

Pretty good drivers don't last 25 years at NASCAR's top level.

Pretty good drivers don't get two different opportunities to drive for Dale Earnhardt.

Pretty good drivers don't win two Daytona 500s.

"I haven't been able to let that go in my brain because I think I am at least a good driver," Waltrip said Wednesday. "I'm better than pretty good. I think what says a lot about my character and attitude is that when I lined up to run the 2001 Daytona 500 I was 0 for 462, that's what the record said.

"But I was convinced that I was going to win that race. I believed in my heart that I had the tools, and I knew I had the ability to win that race. And I don't know of very many people in this sport who could have lost 462 races and lined up in a car and driven to a win in their 463rd race."

The record book shows that Waltrip is 4 for 759, and it's not totally clear just how many races will be added to that total. Faced with a decision to prolong his driving career or focus on the continued growth of Michael Waltrip Racing, he had to think of the betterment of his race team.

It meant turning his car over to free agent Martin Truex Jr., and scaling back into a much more limited schedule. Only sponsorship didn't develop the way Waltrip had hoped, and he headed into the season with only the season-opening Daytona 500 secure on his schedule.

He's since put together a deal that will likely allow him to race at Talladega Superspeedway in April, but Waltrip feels confident this is likely his final 500.

And his participation in Sunday's season-opener isn't even guaranteed.

Waltrip must earn his way into the starting lineup via one of Thursday's qualifying races. He can win a spot in the 43-car field by either claiming one of the two "transfer" spots in his race, or, if Bill Elliott, Scott Speed or Bobby Labonte should claim a transfer spot, Waltrip would make the race based on his speed from qualifying.

He's not worried, even though he joked about the three spins he's had down the back straightaway this Speedweeks.

"I've gone down it three times backward, and it's the only straight part of the entire track, so I can't figure that out," he said. "But I'm actually really encouraged, and I don't think making the race is going to be a problem."

Even if it was, Waltrip would likely find a way to overcome it.

He's made a career out of making the most out of every situation, and the end result is a reputation as an endearing corporate spokesman. The groundwork he laid there is probably what continued his NASCAR career after a disastrous 2007 debut as a car owner.

Flush with three race cars, millions in sponsorship money, a glistening new race shop — and a ton of debt to show for all of it — Waltrip's first season exploded before it even began. He was caught in a cheating scandal that rocked the Daytona 500 and almost caused him to pull out of the race, and it quickly became apparent that his cars were not competitive.

The three MWR drivers missed races, Waltrip suffered through his own personal and family issues, and money quickly began to run out.

His sponsors never stopped trusting that Waltrip could get it figured out.

"I bit off a whole lot and sacrificed a whole lot, my driving career, things at home, financially, and that's probably because I am an all-in type of guy with my personality," Waltrip said. "And I was lucky that my sponsors gave me the benefit of the doubt at the start, that they didn't say to me "This isn't going like how you promised it would.' "

In the two seasons since, MWR has improved by leaps and bounds. Waltrip found the savior to his race team in Robert Kauffman, a founder and managing partner in the Fortress Investment Group that invested in MWR late in the 2007 season. The partnership gave MWR financial stability, and the progress has gone steadily up since.

The MWR drivers all finished 2008 inside the critical top-35 mark, and David Reutimann last season gave the team its first victory with a Coca-Cola 600 win. He also flirted with making the Chase for the championship.

And they were able to sign Truex, who was one of the most coveted free agents last season.

"I'm proud and impressed that he got through the ramp-up, the issues that happened, he continued to press on and made a successful program out of it," NASCAR president Mike Helton said of Waltrip. "Whatever he does next, he will continue to draw attention because he's charismatic and fans like him. The further away he gets from racing, the more that character will be followed."

Dale Earnhardt Jr. said he hoped his former teammates legacy will be what he offered off the track.

"You can't be around the sport as long as he was and not influence someone. He was a good friend to a lot of people, and for me, he always made it easier to be around here," Earnhardt said. "He was one of the personalities that would help you understand not to take (stuff) so seriously. He was great friends with my dad, I got to know him pretty good, and I appreciated him for being a good person.

"And I think he's going to be an even better car owner, so he still has quite a lot to accomplish."

Waltrip doesn't want his driving record to define his career, nor does he want to be judged by his colorful personality. His true mark in NASCAR may not come for several decades, after MWR has a chance to build its own record.

"I think the main thing that I hope to get out of this is just respect that I know what I am doing, there's a method to the way I do things," he said. "I don't mind making fun of myself, I don't mind people thinking I am crazy or goofy, but I do have a plan. When I showed up in 1985, I didn't have a plan, I just wanted to race a car.

"But now I have a plan to make MWR a destination — for drivers, crew members and sponsors, because they appreciate the way we conduct business and that we are thankful for the opportunity to be here."