One year makes big difference for Waltrip at Daytona

Michael Waltrip, left, could stand tall next to pole-winner Jimmie Johnson after the second best Daytona 500 qualifying run of the day. AP Photo/Terry Renna

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- From disgraced to embraced.

Michael Waltrip, last year's bad boy of Daytona as the rocket-fuel cheater, or whatever the additive was, will start on the front row for the Daytona 500.

"There's reason to think we shouldn't even be here," Waltrip said. "In the middle of '07, if you were my banker, you had to wonder if we were going to survive. This is a big step in the right direction. I hope to be on a lot of newspaper's covers this week."

Waltrip made plenty of headlines a year ago, but for all the wrong reasons, branded as the biggest cheater in a week of cheaters.

But Sunday was a new day. Waltrip turned a lap at 186.734 mph in the No. 55 Toyota, just a blink off Jimmie Johnson's pole lap.

"It's incredible what this team has accomplished," Waltrip said. "I'm just thankful. Like last year, I still want to cry, but now I'm happy. Now we're on the front row."

Waltrip didn't know that for sure when he was standing on pit road Sunday after his qualifying attempt. An inspection process was in order, something that caused Waltrip's new team and Toyota enormous embarrassment one year ago.

NASCAR officials found an illegal substance, which was never identified, in the manifold of Waltrip's Camry in 2007. Waltrip's qualifying lap was disallowed, but that was the least of the problems for Michael Waltrip Racing.

Waltrip was docked 100 points and former crew chief David Hyder was fined $100,000. Hyder and team vice president Bobby Kennedy were suspended indefinitely and escorted off the premises.

Toyota officials couldn't have envisioned a more humiliating way to make their Cup debut. The manufacturer and its new signature team were surrounded by controversy.

A contrite Waltrip had to defend his character, claiming he knew nothing about whatever was done to his engine.

Trying to bend the rules is one thing. Obvious cheating is something else. This one was such a senseless act that it caused jaws to drop in the garage. Maybe you could try that 40 years ago, but no one gets away with such a blatant cheat in this era.

"There's no way in a hundred years anybody would condone what happened," Waltrip said.

How could it happen? That question never was answered, Waltrip said, but it started an avalanche of failure with the entire three-car operation.

He still raced his way into the Daytona 500, finishing 30th, but failed to qualify for the next 11 events. Waltrip raced in three of the first 18 events and only 14 all season.

Teammate Dale Jarrett missed 12 races and rookie David Reutimann missed eight events in MWR equipment.

Waltrip also had controversy away from the track, wrecking his car late at night and leaving the scene of the accident in April 2007 near his North Carolina home.

Questions surfaced about whether Toyota would keep Waltrip as one of its team owners. And what about his sponsors? What were they thinking?

It was starting to look like a cheap made-for-TV movie about a famous guy riding high before his life went down the drain.

But Waltrip didn't last more than 20 years in Cup by giving up when times got hard. Publicly at least, he kept a positive front. Privately, Waltrip was making changes to salvage his new empire and regain his respectability.

In October, he followed the trend and added real estate developer Robert Kauffman as his new partner at MWR. Waltrip also hired former Cup team owner Cal Wells as his vice president of business operations.

Michael Waltrip

I can't tell you how many dollars were lost and how much credibility was taken away. We've survived and now have our foundation steady. I had to work really, really hard to try to prove we were worthy of this opportunity. I think slowly but surely we're starting to prove that."

-- Michael Waltrip

And Waltrip was making moves in the shop. He hired veteran crew chief Paul Andrews to head the No. 55 team, also adding crew chiefs Ryan Pemberton and Bill Pappas for the other teams.

Andrews suffered serious injuries last August when he broke his back from a 30-foot fall off a ladder, but he made it back and never lost focus on his new job at MWR.

"Paul is a real leader," Waltrip said. "He says, 'Get behind me and I'll show you what we need to do.' I needed someone like that."

Waltrip also needed support from NAPA, the sponsor of his car. He credits NAPA president Bob Susor with helping MWR stay afloat.

"Without their support, I would not be in business still," Waltrip said. "I wouldn't be sitting here. I will always be grateful about how well they treated me through the hard times."

Waltrip hopes the hard times are over. Toyota is vastly improved this season and MWR has a new beginning after a year of hardship.

"I can't tell you how many dollars were lost and how much credibility was taken away," Waltrip said. "We've survived and now have our foundation steady.

"I had to work really, really hard to try to prove we were worthy of this opportunity. I think slowly but surely we're starting to prove that."

Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. He can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.