Waltrip Stalls As Season Starts

Monday, March 19th 2007, 5:55 pm

By: News On 6

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) _ It's hard not to feel sorry for Michael Waltrip.

Between the Daytona 500 cheating scandal and atrocious at-track performance, Waltrip's having a horrendous start to the season.

He failed to make the field for the last three Nextel Cup events. And the cars he fields for Dale Jarrett and David Reutimann are nothing more than backmarkers, frustrating for a car owner who can't put a competitive product on the track.

What was supposed to be Waltrip's dream season has become his worst nightmare _ the kind you wouldn't wish on your worst enemy.

Sponsors are getting restless, Toyota officials are scratching their heads and fans are finding it hard to root for someone who's not even in the race.

An embarrassed and humbled Waltrip's desperately trying to keep things together.

``We're not hitting it in many different ways,'' said the two-time Daytona 500 winner.

So, Waltrip's asking for help.

He's asked Toyota Racing Development to send some engineers to the shop. Even NASCAR is getting into the act. After three weeks of struggling through the inspection line, NASCAR had an official spend a day at Waltrip's shop to try to figure out why the organization isn't building cars that fit the templates.

``We've just got to look at every piece and part of our team to see how to improve,'' Waltrip said. ``We really just have to adjust what we are doing as a team.''

But is it too little, too late?

It's only four races into the season, but Waltrip admits NAPA, primary sponsor of his No. 55 Camry, is less than pleased. The sponsor had a happy relationship with Dale Earnhardt Inc. and found the ultimate pitchman when DEI teamed the company with Waltrip.

A goofball who tends to not take himself too seriously, Waltrip clowned his way through commercial after commercial and never missed an opportunity to slip ``NAPA'' into a sentence.

NAPA had every reason to believe leaving DEI for Waltrip's startup was a wise investment.

Maybe it still is. Waltrip's everywhere on TV, from commercials to stints in the broadcast booth, where he plugs NAPA several times a weekend.

But chances are the auto-parts retailer would rather see its logo racing for the lead than on a hat Waltrip's wearing far from the action.

Keeping the sponsor happy is NASCAR's No. 1 rule. If NAPA reaches its breaking point, Waltrip is in far worse trouble than he ever imagined.

Even without NAPA, he still would have three heavyweight sponsors _ UPS for Jarrett, plus Burger King and Domino's Pizza for Reutimann. But he must find a way to make those cars competitive before company officials start asking for some money back.

Meanwhile, there are plenty of people who are all too happy to sit back and watch Waltrip struggle.

At his emotional news conference in Daytona _ where he said he had no idea how a fuel additive found its way into his gas tank _ detractors were convinced they were witnessing the best performance of Waltrip's life.

And plenty of people still aren't convinced Waltrip wasn't an accomplice to the cheating.

But how low must Waltrip sink before he's paid the price?

He can't seem to catch a break, proven in Saturday's Busch race when he wrecked twice in the first 16 laps and finished last.

Maybe Waltrip was too ambitious this year, his first as a full-time car owner. Perhaps he should have fielded two Cup cars instead of three, and maybe he should be spending more time in the shop and less in front of the TV cameras.

Mistakes have certainly been made, and it's up to Waltrip to correct them. This is his chance to prove he's cut out for the business-side of NASCAR, and he's got 32 races to figure it out.

Here's hoping he does. Love him or hate him, it's uncomfortable watching his career crumble.

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