DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Michael Waltrip stared at various television monitors, keeping an eye on every pass, push and position swap between three or four cars.
It was eye-popping, nerve-racking, breathtaking, and — ultimately — exhilarating.
Those final laps of the second Daytona 500 qualifying race Thursday turned out to be the best part of his day, week and month. The finish secured Waltrip a starting spot in what could be his last Daytona 500, the race that has provided him with so many highs and lows during his 26-year career.
"Well, I guess I've come to expect it a little bit," Waltrip said. "I know for some reason, for me, this place, it defines my career. My first memories of NASCAR racing were coming here as a kid. I figured when I woke up this morning I'd be crying before the day was over. I just didn't know if it would be because I was happy or because I was sad.
"And then I damn sure didn't know it would be both within an hour of each other. To be able to smile now, you know, it really feels rewarding."
Waltrip, a two-time Daytona 500 winner, failed to get into the Great American Race during the first qualifying race. He spun in the closing laps and blamed himself for the error. Even more disappointing, he lost all control of his fate.
He stuck around the track in hopes of getting his sponsor a few free plugs on TV and having extra camera angles to keep tabs on Scott Speed and Bobby Labonte — the two guys he needed help from to make it in. His facial expressions ranged from disbelief to relief as Speed passed Casey Mears into the closing laps to land Waltrip a berth.
"To try to remain calm and watch that was as hard as anything I've ever done," Waltrip said. "To watch it work out right, it was better than hitting the lottery."
Teammates, fellow drivers and even Speed celebrated along with Waltrip.
"I'm glad I was able to get him in that race," Speed said. "I think the big man deserves to be in it."
Waltrip gave Speed a huge hug when they crossed paths a few minutes after the race and said he has "roses for you young man when you get to the motor home." He even said he didn't care that Speed, considered one of the most unique drivers in the field, paints his toenails.
"I've never got my toenails done, but if that's what makes him happy, I'm going to support him," Waltrip said. "I did get a pedicure the other day, so maybe I'm heading that direction."
Waltrip's driving career is certainly heading toward retirement.
The 46-year-old owner/driver decided to reduce his driving commitments this season and focus on the continued growth of Michael Waltrip Racing. He turned his car over to Martin Truex Jr. and scaled back to a much more limited schedule. Only sponsorship didn't develop the way Waltrip had hoped, and he headed into the season with only a Daytona 500 ride secure.
He has since put together a deal that likely will allow him to race at Talladega Superspeedway in April, but Waltrip feels confident this is his final 500. It could be the perfect place to call it quits. He won the 500 here in 2001 and 2003, but the first one came seconds after Dale Earnhardt fatally crashed coming out of the final turn. Waltrip also went through an embarrassing debut with Toyota in 2007, when his team was caught cheating days before the 500.
His performance at Daytona this time around has been far from perfect, too, possibly reinforcing his decision to step away. He spun three times on the backstretch — once in the exhibition Budweiser Shootout and twice in practice — then had another wild ride in Thursday's race.
His car struggled to turn on the high-banked track, developed a vibration in one wheel and spun a short time late.
"I need to just become a car owner because this was hard today," he said. "I got to prove to myself on Sunday in the 500 or at Talladega, where I know I'm going to run, that I can indeed make the moves to win these races. I didn't do anything today to impress myself, and that's disappointing."