Since 1986 Michael Waltrip has been a full-time competitor in NASCAR’s Winston Cup Series. He was handed the ride of his life, however, when Dale Earnhardt selected him to drive for Dale Earnhardt Inc., in 2001. A strong midseason run this year enabled Waltrip to renew his contract with DEI. In this interview with Stock Car Racing , Waltrip talks about that renewal, about NASCAR, and his start in racing.

SCR: Your job with DEI appeared in jeopardy earlier this year, but you stepped up your performance and became the highest-ranking DEI driver. What was the key?

Waltrip: Well, the key to the turnaround actually was in September of 2001 when Slugger (Labbe, crew chief) came onboard. He and I were able to work together in a productive and a positive way. Some things just take a little time. We would have been in trouble if someone just expected to say, “OK, we don’t know what we’re going to do with Michael,” and Michael stopped performing. It doesn’t work like that. What we were doing at the shop and the cars we were building and what we were preparing back here to go to the racetrack, it just took a little time for Slugger and me to get on the same page and for him to develop the cars to the point where we could run the types of setups I needed to be successful.

SCR: Sounds like a lot of it was an elusive concept called “chemistry.”

Waltrip: Chemistry, that’s a crazy thing, but it’s so very important. I guess over the years I discounted the importance of it. I just thought if you can do the job, you can do it; it doesn’t matter. My relationship with teams over the years probably suffered from my ignorance of the importance of chemistry. I saw last summer that I had no chemistry and I didn’t have a relationship with the crew chief at DEI, and I was determined to find that and get someone in here I could work with and we could feed off of each other.

SCR: You’re no longer just Darrell Waltrip’s little brother. You’ve progressed from that to a driver capable of holding a job with one of the sport’s elite teams. How tough was that transition?

Waltrip: I’ve never looked at myself as Darrell’s little brother. I’ve always just taken what that meant and tried to use it to my advantage. When I was a kid growing up in Kentucky, nobody else’s brother was off racing against Richard Petty in the Southern 500 and winning NASCAR races. When I started my go-kart racing and my local racing in Owensboro, I had a last name, and fortunately I had talent, too. I would win races and I would get sponsors. That was just the way I did my job. When I got to Winston Cup, I got here early. Racing was a lot different in 1986 than it is in 2002. We had a shoestring budget and we competed with used engines and used tires and used cars, and we had no hope of contending for a win. We basically were just trying to survive.

SCR: Was your family a big influence in getting your career started?

Waltrip: My parents and Darrell never really helped me get started. You’ve heard “been there, done that.” They had sacrificed so much in order for Darrell to start racing. For instance, I got a go-kart and just assumed I would keep it at my house, but they said, “No, you ain’t keeping it here. We don’t want to have anything to do with you having it.” I even found a sponsor to get it for me. I was only 12 and didn’t have any money, and all I was looking for was somewhere to put it, you know? And they wouldn’t even let me do that. I remember calling Darrell when I was 10 or 11 and asking him for the money to buy a go-kart. He told me I was wasting my time. I thought, “I’ll be darn; we’ll see.” Those were the early memories of trying to get started. Once I got the ball rolling, though, Darrell was real supportive and my parents were, too.

SCR: Do you remember the first race you entered on that go-kart?

Waltrip: My first race on my own go-kart was in Olney, Illinois. Jeff Green and all the Greens were racing there. There was a series called SIRA, Southern Indiana Racing Association. I remember going out and they had a cool go-kart track, like a road course. It was fun to drive on. I’m challenged mechanically, even today somewhat. I know just about enough to get me in trouble on a lot of occasions. When I was 12, I was only worse. I was buddies with Jeff Green and his family helped me with my go-kart. My kart was the same as the type the Greens were all running. I told Jeff it wouldn’t run right coming off the corners there at Olney. You had to adjust the carburetor mixture as you’re riding and I had done all that, but it still wouldn’t work right. So Jeff, who was only 13 at the time, took a screwdriver and tore my carburetor apart right there on the side of the track and rebuilt it and put it back together, and I went out and won the class. That was pretty neat.

SCR: Do you remember your first race in a stock car?

Waltrip: It was at Kentucky Motor Speedway and it was just like my first go-kart race because I won it, too, a Mini-Modified event. Newt Moore, who is now crew chief for (Kenny) Schrader, towed from Nashville to Kentucky Motor Speedway in Owensboro. I went out and broke the track record. We had practiced and had a cool car, the Mountain Dew No. 11, just like Darrell’s (Cup car). After I went out and broke the track record, Newt went out and broke the track record, so he was the fastest qualifier. There were four of us in the trophy dash and I started third, he started fourth. I got the lead first—it was only like five laps—then he passed me and won the trophy dash. In the heat race, same deal. I get through the traffic, lead the race, then he passes me and wins the heat. In the feature, I get out there and I’m leading. I would pay no telling what for a video of this, but I’m sure there isn’t one. But in the feature I get the lead and he passes me. I don’t remember how but I passed him back and won my first feature event, but I never will forget my dad being there and what a big night it was. Mini-Modifieds, 1981, at Kentucky Motor Speedway. I went on to win the championship that year.

SCR: Then in 1983 you won the Goody’s Dash Series title. How involved in your career was Darrell at that point?

Waltrip: He offered a lot of advice. He won the Winston Cup championship in ’81 and ’82, so I can’t put a price tag on what that meant because it did so much for me. It enabled me to find sponsorship and get people to help me because of my last name. Then my first real sponsor, my first big sponsor, was Komfort Koach, a van company in Louisville, Kentucky, and Darrell put that deal together.

SCR: How do Darrell’s experiences as a team owner factor into your possible career as a full-time team owner?

Waltrip: The reason I have a Busch team is because of Darrell. I always liked how he had a car of his own to fiddle with. He was off driving for Junior Johnson, but he had his own shop and had his own guys. It was something that I always looked at and thought one day that’s what I want to do. So in ’96 I started my Busch team and we’ve been successful, won some poles, and won some races. When you look at an operation like Dale Earnhardt Inc., and try to figure out how to compete against it, you have to really make sure you have your ducks in a row when you start thinking about moving into Winston Cup as an owner. It’s all about people and money—the money you can attract from sponsors in order to hire the people you want to do the job. I think I have a real good understanding of what it would take to be successful. But time will tell whether I ever wind up owning a team or if I just drive.

SCR: How much different would the management side of DEI be if Dale were still alive?

Waltrip: I can’t comment intelligently on that because I wasn’t around here when he was running it. I really loved his presence, whether it was at DEI or at the racetrack or just simply fishing or hanging out. He had a presence that was amazing. He was in charge. I’m sure this place misses that; I don’t see how it couldn’t. I think there are a lot of people who are very determined to make it go forward like Dale would have wanted it to do.

SCR: You were here with Dale for just three months or so, is that correct?

Waltrip: Yeah, and those were a fun three months, preparing for the 2001 season and beyond. I’m glad I had that time working with Dale, and I was really looking forward to having him run my career. I think he looked at my career and said, “OK, boy, you’ve got a lot of talent; I think you can drive a race car as good as anybody, but you haven’t done a very good job so far. I’m going to straighten this deal out for you.” I think that’s the way he looked at it. I took it that way, and I think that’s the way he looked at it, and I was looking forward to that leadership.

SCR: Do you ever worry that you’re being pigeonholed as a driver who excels only in restrictor plate races?

Waltrip: I ran second last fall at Homestead and ran Top 5 at Michigan this year. I’ve been pretty competitive everywhere. I’ve excelled at the plate races. That’s the only events we’ve been able to win, but I’m not concerned about being pigeonholed, because I’m in control. What other people think does not affect how I run at Darlington this weekend or at Richmond the next. I control that, and I don’t believe that restrictor plate tracks are the only places I can win. So who cares what everybody else thinks?

SCR: What are three things you would like to see NASCAR do? Think safety, marketing, events—anything.

Waltrip: I like the proactive direction that the safety deal is going, instead of reactive. NASCAR has the folks in Hickory (North Carolina) learning about cars. They’ve got the doctor out in Nebraska learning about walls. Then the teams independently are trying to develop safety. I love all that, and I want to see that continue. That’s paramount. Part of that continuing is bigger cars. That has to happen, and it has to happen sooner rather than later. As we make the cars bigger, I like that for competition. We need the cars to be aerodynamically similar to a truck, so the guys can’t just break away. We need the cars to bust the air up and hopefully make—even at Michigan and California—the draft become a part of racing. Of course, there’s the development of safer barriers. I don’t like to call them “soft walls” because they still hurt, but they are safer. It’s a good direction to go in. So safety, safety, safety is important.

SCR: You’re a legitimate 6 feet 5 inches, is that correct?

Waltrip: Yes.

SCR: Is that the whole thing with the bigger greenhouse, to make the cars more comfortable for bigger drivers?

Waltrip: If everybody were 5 feet 5 inches, it wouldn’t be that big of an issue. If we had kept going—and NASCAR put the brakes on heading that way already by recognizing they can’t get any smaller—but if we had kept going in the direction we were heading in up until just a few years ago, a guy like Richard Petty might not ever have gotten an opportunity to drive a race car. If he comes along in 2020 and these cars continue to shrink like Indy cars have done, then we’re going to see a bunch of little short guys running around weighing 140 and driving Winston Cup cars. I don’t think that was Mr. France’s idea when he started this deal.