DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – After today’s running of the Gatorade Duels at Daytona International Speedway, NAPA Racing will boast two entries in the 52nd running of NASCAR’s most prestigious event on Sunday. Waltrip will line up 43rd while Martin Truex Jr. will start 14th.
The two-time Daytona 500 champion had to wait it out to see if he earned a coveted spot after an accident relegated him to a 25th-place finish in the first 150-mile qualifier. Thanks to Scott Speed racing his way to one of two transfer spots in the second 150-mile event, Waltrip was able to earn his 24th straight start in the Daytona 500 since he recorded the fifth-fastest qualifying speed of the go-or-go-home cars.
“We're racecar drivers, and Scott did his job,” said Waltrip who cheered his fellow Toyota driver to the finish line. “I'm so grateful and thankful that it worked out. You know, obviously the teams that won the race were locked in, too. You know, people show up to race. Just because you're locked in doesn't mean you roll over or there wouldn't be a race. So I knew Scott would race. I knew he wasn't going to think about quitting or give up. I'm just thankful that he had a car there at the end he could do the job with.”
Waltrip’s 150-mile qualifier had several tense moments, but over half the event, it looked like the No. 51 NAPA AUTO PARTS Toyota would race to a transfer spot with relative ease despite the car’s challenging balance.
“I was real disappointed today because my car didn't handle right. It didn't handle like it did yesterday. You have a pretty good gauge on if your car's like it was or not. That's the splitter. Yesterday, I was just scrubbing the splitter in a perfect way. Today it felt like it was a foot off the ground, and we didn't change anything.”
The first of two caution flags during Waltrip’s Gatorade Duel happened on lap 24. Jeff Burton had a tire fail. The NAPA team brought Waltrip down pit road for air pressure and packer changes. The No. 51 Toyota returned to the track in 16th position, good enough to be scored in the second transfer spot.
The packer adjustments helped Waltrip as he ran 15th with just 10 laps to go and in the top transfer spot. But then trouble occurred when Waltrip felt his car shake and then lose control. The NAPA Toyota slid into an inside wall, all but dashing his chances for another run at a third Harley J. Earl trophy.
“For some reason, the car just didn't go back to the ground like it was supposed to, and it wouldn't drive right. I think it eventually messed up my tires.
“So we'll regroup and figure out what David had, what Marcos had, what Martin had, put that setup into our cars. All three of those cars were really competitive. We seemed to be a notch off. We can't do what Penske or Hendrick cars or even Kasey's car did. So that's a little bit concerning. I know we've got a lot of smart people that will work on that and try to figure out how to get us some speed before Sunday.”
Fortunately, the tide turned for the No. 51 NAPA AUTO PARTS team with the running of the second 150-mile race.
“I know for some reason, for me, this place, it defines my career,” Waltrip reflected. “It certainly is my first memories of NASCAR racing, was 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 because, you know, we took a part-time car, Bobby Kennedy, my buddy, who has helped me out so, so long, put a crew together and gave me a car on Saturday that we qualified fast enough to make the 500 with.”
Martin Truex Jr. and veteran crew chief Pat Tryson made their NAPA Racing debut in NASCAR Sprint Cup during the second Gatorade Duel. Truex’s 60-lap race saw him dicing it up in the top 10 in just 10 laps. The young driver who takes over for Waltrip in the NAPA ride after Daytona, saw his car vastly improve in comparison to yesterday’s practice. His only major issue was the bumps on the 2.5-mile superspeedway which made the No. 56 very loose.
The team’s only pit stop happened under caution on lap 28. Air pressure and four fresh tires were changed in a blistering fast pace. The 13-second service enabled Truex to gain five spots on the track. When the race went back to green on lap 30, Truex never looked back and diced it up for a chance to challenge for the win. When the checkered flag waved, the No. 56 crossed the line in sixth place.
“It was a lot of fun,” beamed Truex after he climbed from his No. 56 NAPA AUTO PARTS Toyota. “The NAPA Toyota was really good. It was much better than it was in practice. We got to the front a few times – got shuffled back. Would get to the front again and get shuffled back. I was about three or four inches a few times from getting that hole that I needed to get to the front and stay there. It was a lot of fun. I learned a lot. The pit crew was phenomenal. Our pit stop was smoking fast so I was excited about that. We’ve got something to work with for Sunday now.”
Sunday’s running of the Daytona 500 will see six cars built by Michael Waltrip Racing – a first for its young Sprint Cup racing program. The organization’s other two headliner’s David Reutimann and JTG-Daugherty Racing driver Marco Ambrose will start 26th and 16th.
“There are six cars in the Daytona 500 that we built in Cornelius at MWR,” added Waltrip. “Prism racing with Phil Parsons, they're a customer of ours, as is Germain. Then our four cars there with Brad and Tad. You know, our customers that buy parts and pieces and cars for us made the race. So we got happy customers, and that's good for any business. You know, it's real important to be able to diversify and figure out how to bring money into the company in order to help pay the bills. We have great partnerships with the Germains, Max in the Geico car, and Phil and Randy Humphrey with Prism buy stuff from us, as well. I'm mostly proud of all that because there's a bunch of men and women, fabricators, engineers, that figured out how to make cars competitive for this place. So when those guys send us a check for the cars they bought, you know, it's going to feel pretty good to them to know that we were able to provide them with stuff to have the success they did down here.”
FIRST RACE NOTES:
· Jimmie Johnson grabbed his first career Gatorade duel win by beating Kevin Harvick by .005 of a second.
· Michael McDowell and Max Papis raced their way into the Daytona 500 by finishing 14th and 15th respectively.
· Kyle Busch, Clint Bowyer and Regan Smith rounded out the top five.
SECOND RACE NOTES:
· Kasey Kahne won his first career Gatorade duel win by defeating Tony Stewart
· Mike Bliss and Scott Speed raced their way into the 52nd Daytona 500 by finishing 13th and 14th, respectively
· Speed, racing his way in, opened the door for the fourth-fastest qualifier on time — Michael Waltrip
· Michael Waltrip makes the Daytona 500 for the third time since 2007 without a guaranteed starting spot.
· The No. 51 is also the seventh MWR car since 2007 to make the field without a guaranteed starting spot.
· Six Toyota Camry’s associated with Michael Waltrip Racing will now race in the Daytona 500.
Broadcast coverage of the Daytona 500 gets underway on Sunday starting at 1 p.m. ET on FOX. It can also be heard on MRN and Sirius XM Satellite Radio.