Tuesday, June 15, 2004

Waltrip returns to his Ky. roots

Star driver set for Busch race

By Dustin Dow
The Cincinnati Enquirer

You can take the racecar driver out of Kentucky, but put on one of the best-promoted Busch Series events, and eventually he'll come back.

Two-time Daytona 500 winner and Owensboro, Ky. native Michael Waltrip plans to race for the first time at Kentucky Speedway Saturday in the Meijer 300.

As a fixture of NASCAR's Nextel Cup and Busch Series circuits, Waltrip lives near the sport's hub in Charlotte, N.C. Waltrip did not drive in the first three Busch Series races at Kentucky Speedway because he had been competing full-time in the Nextel series, which races in Michigan the same weekend Busch is in Kentucky.

This year, Waltrip, 41, is driving full-time in both series, so he'll race in Kentucky on Saturday and Michigan on Sunday.

"It's nothing," Waltrip said. "I've done this enough where they each have their own personalities, and when you understand what those are, you can jump back and forth in two seconds and never miss a beat."

Finally racing at the four-year-old Kentucky Speedway has been a priority for Waltrip who regularly tests his Nextel Cup car at the track. Because of Nextel Cup commitments, however, he had always been unable to race at Kentucky, which has sold out all three of its Busch races and offers the sixth-largest purse for a Busch event.

A good start in the Busch Series this season convinced Waltrip to race in the second-tier series full-time, even if it means splitting time between tracks this weekend.

The decision is paying off well in the Busch Series where Waltrip comes into Kentucky in fifth place in the standings after 15 races. He's 24th in Nextel Cup. Despite his Busch success, Waltrip does not know if he'll stay with the series for the entire year, though he would like to if possible.

"I'm not planning on it because one thunderstorm at the wrong time could mess up the whole deal," Waltrip said. "We're going to try to do it, and if it works, we'll do it. But if we miss a race down the line, we'll probably say, never mind, we're not going to do them all."

Just having him back at Kentucky is important for the Speedway whose fans and track personnel identify with Waltrip. Track operations director Andy Vertrees owned and operated Kentucky Motor Speedway near Owensboro, from 1980-87 where Waltrip started racing.

"Michael's been in my heart for a long time," Vertrees said. "When he raced for me and won the mini-stock championship at Owensboro, I knew he would be a good driver. He was testing at a (Kentucky Speedway) garage last year, and I pulled up and he looked at me and said, 'Andy, did you ever think it would come to this?' It's a pretty neat situation for me, a lot of pride."

Waltrip says he makes no secret about the fact he's from Kentucky when he's working around the garages in North Carolina.

"We hold up our Kentucky flag deep down in ACC country to tell them we can do it a little bit better up here," Waltrip said. "I am motivated heavily by the opportunity to come here and win this race. I'm from Kentucky, and I know all the race fans in the grandstands know I'm from Kentucky and I'm proud of that."

Meijer 300

What: The Meijer 300 presented by Oreo, NASCAR Busch Series race

Where: Kentucky Speedway, Sparta, Ky.

When: Saturday, 8 p.m. (Qualifying Friday)


E-mail ddow@enquirer.com

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