In retrospect, Earnhardt made right choice

Michael Waltrip Waltrip

The No. 15 Chevrolet Monte Carlo, a car and team born amid tragedy and triumph, will now lose the only remnant left from its 2001 roots: driver Michael Waltrip.

Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt Inc., which fields the blue and yellow Chevy, announced they will part ways at the end of this year.

"All of us at DEI want to thank Michael for all his contributions to our organization and wish him well as he moves on in his career," DEI vice president Richie Gilmore said in a release issued by the team.

When Dale Earnhardt tabbed Waltrip to be the first driver of DEI's No. 15 car, it was a dream job for the winless, down-on-his-luck racer. Waltrip was just itching for a well-funded and resourceful organization to give him a chance. Earnhardt was the man to do it, passing over many talented racers to put Waltrip in the seat of his car.

How did Waltrip respond? After 463 failed attempts, he went out and won his first race with the team -- the 2001 Daytona 500. It was the very race in which Earnhardt died on the last lap, knowing that his driver -- nobody's pick for the No. 15 seat when Earnhardt had announced he was moving his NAPA Truck Series team to the Cup Series -- was headed to Victory Lane.

Earnhardt must have known in the final laps of the race, the final laps of his life, that he'd made the right choice with Waltrip. He must have known that he'd picked a driver who could win. What he didn't live to see was that Waltrip would remain a threat to win for the next four years of his career, even though he didn't always make good on those threats, and even though he never did threaten to win a title.

"Dale and Teresa gave me an opportunity with a winning organization that I have been proud to be an integral part of for the last five years," Waltrip said in the same DEI release. "My professional relationship with DEI is ending, but my personal relationships have ties that are deep-rooted. Therefore, my decision to leave DEI is a difficult one. Our individual visions for the future are taking different courses, but our goals are the same: to be successful in the premier division of NASCAR."

Waltrip's decision to leave might appear a bit curious. After all, when Waltrip was running well with the No. 15 team, he would often say that he'd always believed he could compete in Cup racing but was just waiting for a competitive team to give him a shot at doing it. The No. 15 team is probably Waltrip's most lucrative option -- a team with money, resources and experience to contend.

The rumor mill, in full operation by the beginning of this summer, has Waltrip headed to the No. 0 Chevrolet -- which would put him in a moderately funded and much less competitive operation. It would put Waltrip back in a position where his talents might not be enough to make the team competitive.

But wherever he lands, he will do so having proved one point: In a ride that has the potential to contend, Waltrip is capable of steering it toward its potential. Waltrip proved that his winless streak was less about his talents and more about his opportunities, or lack thereof. He proved that he could win races. But he never did get to a point where he proved he could win a championship.

After Waltrip won in his first run with the No. 15 team, the remainder of his season was mostly a disappointment. He did run second to Dale Earnhardt Jr. when NASCAR returned to Daytona for the Pepsi 400. He finished second in Homestead, Fla., too. But a majority of the team's finishes fell outside the top 20, relegating Waltrip to a 24th-place finish in the points standings -- just three spots better than he'd finished the year before.

In the ensuing years, Waltrip remained a force at the restrictor-plate venues and, as his team churned out better cars at a wider variety of tracks, he started to become competitive elsewhere. In 2003, Waltrip's consistency at the range of tracks had him among the top 10 for most of the year, falling to a 15th-place points finish only over the final 10 races of the season.

That left him with a finish only one spot lower than the year before. Those two finishes were his best since a three-year run from 1994 to 1996, when he ran competitively and finished just outside the top 10.

Some might argue that Waltrip's success was a product of DEI's superior plate-racing program, which allowed him to collect four wins on superspeedways -- the only four wins he has notched in his career. But that disregards his ability to take the ever-improving cars and finish with the leaders everywhere. And that was Waltrip's point all along. The many years when he was a 20th-place racer were a product of driving for a 20th-place team. In a car that was capable of contending, he believed he was capable of making it happen.

And for the most part, he did.

Waltrip said he raced a little harder when he got to DEI because that's what you do when Dale Earnhardt puts his faith in you. And with the book almost closed on that tandem -- DEI and Waltrip -- Waltrip can walk away knowing Earnhardt's faith wasn't misplaced.

Rupen Fofaria is a freelance writer living in Chicago and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at rfofaria@espnspecial.com.