DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Michael Waltrip sat in a golf cart just outside the care center, stared at the ground and sheepishly placed both hands on his head.
He knew he made a costly error in the first qualifying race Thursday, one that will end his streak of 25 consecutive starts in the Daytona 500.
The two-time Daytona 500 winner wrecked his No. 40 Toyota with seven laps remaining in the 150-mile race. It was an odd one, too. Waltrip was getting up to speed after leaving the pits and trying to merge onto the high-banked oval when he lost control of his car and slammed into the wall. He finished 18th in the 25-car field.
“I just made a mistake,” said Waltrip, who was unharmed. “I just went the wrong way and lost the car. I feel like I let everybody down. I raced my way to the front and then I let them down. It’s just really hard. I don’t know what to say. It’s just sad.”
Waltrip’s frustration was evident during the final few laps.
He watched the scoring tower and knew he needed a bunch of help to make the season-opening event. It didn’t happen. Michael McDowell and Robby Gordon raced their way into the opener and eliminated Waltrip.
Waltrip also crashed in Saturday night’s exhibition Budweiser Shootout, making this a difficult Speedweeks for him. Throw in his wreck in the 24-hour race at Daytona last month and it’s been a forgettable start to 2012 for one of NASCAR’s biggest personalities.
He has started every Daytona 500 since 1987, the longest current streak in NASCAR. Mark Martin, who drives for Michael Waltrip Racing, has started 24 in a row and will tie Waltrip’s streak Sunday.
“I’m crushed for him,” Martin said. “I know how much the Daytona 500 means to him. There are disappointments in this thing, and this is just one he has to deal with tonight. You want it all, and he wants to be in the Daytona 500.”
Waltrip could have bought his way into the opener, and Gordon said after earning a starting position that he would consider selling his spot. But MWR confirmed Thursday night that Waltrip will not try to buy a ride.
So this will be the first time since 1972 that no Waltrip has driven in the Daytona 500. Darrell Waltrip started 28 in a row between 1973 and 2000.
“It’s a tough one for him,” MWR driver Martin Truex Jr. said. “He’s been coming here a long time and this race means everything to him. It was hard to watch that. He’s got a lot to be proud of as many times as he’s been in it; he’s started more in a row than anybody. He’s got that going for him. Hopefully tonight, when he’s sitting there thinking about it, he’s thinking of the good of what came out of his Daytona 500 starts.”
Waltrip won The Great American Race in 2001 and 2003, both while driving for Dale Earnhardt Inc. He started his own team in 2007, but has just one top-10 finish in five races as an owner/driver.
MWR will have three cars in the opener, fielding rides for Martin, Truex and Clint Bowyer.
“It’s important for him to put today behind him and come to peace about it and support his team,” Truex said.
“He’s an awesome owner, and it will mean a lot to all of us for him to be cheering us on and standing behind us all week. Hopefully, one of us will be able to take him to Victory Lane and make up for this.”
Fellow owner/driver Tony Stewart, who won the first qualifying race, expressed disappointment in the realization Waltrip won’t be in Sunday’s 43-car field.
“Michael is very passionate about restrictor-plate racing,” Stewart said. “There’s a lot of us that like it when we get back to normal racing. This is Michael’s specialty. This is what he eats, lives and breathes: Daytona and Talladega. It would be a shame if he doesn’t make it.”