Daytona 500 2012: Michael Waltrip's Mistake Leads To Heartbreak

The seconds and minutes dragged by painfully as Michael Waltrip sat on a golf cart, the picture of failure.

He pulled his hat down over his eyes and buried his head in his hands, unwilling to face the reality of what had just occurred.

Can you blame him?

By no fault of anyone but his own, Michael Waltrip missed the Daytona 500 on Thursday afternoon. The veteran driver made a rookie mistake during the Gatorade Duel qualifying race, and it cost him a spot in his favorite event.

For the first time since 1972, a Waltrip will not race in the 500.

"I just went the wrong way and lost the car," Waltrip said afterward. "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."

Later, Waltrip added: "I just screwed up. I gotta live with it."

And he does – at least until next year's Daytona 500 qualifications offer some redemption.

Midway through the 150-mile race, Waltrip had gained a coveted transfer position into the 500 but gave up his spot on the track to make a pit stop and refuel under green-flag conditions.

As he left pit road, the two-time Daytona 500 champion tried to get up to speed on the apron in Turn 2, then turned up the track. But when he hit the banking, his car bobbled and took a sickening swing toward the wall.

With no one else around, Waltrip lost control and hit the barrier, destroying both his car and his Daytona 500 dreams.

The mistake was twofold. Not only did Waltrip wreck, but NASCAR had told the drivers during their pre-race meeting that it was not necessary to use the apron before blending back onto the track from pit road.

For a man whose quest for admiration and respect has never quite been fulfilled, this was nothing less than a crushing disappointment.

Growing up in the shadow of his Hall of Fame brother Darrell, the younger Michael wrote in In The Blink Of An Eye that he never got the attention he craved from his father. No one took his racing aspirations seriously, and when he eventually succeeded in becoming a NASCAR driver like the brother he idolized, he began his career on an 0-for-462 streak.

After years of struggles, his close friend Dale Earnhardt took a bold chance on Waltrip and hired him to race for Dale Earnhardt Inc. The two formulated a plan to win the 2001 Daytona 500, which would be Waltrip's first race with the team.

And it worked. But as Waltrip streaked toward the finish line, Earnhardt crashed behind him and was killed.

So instead of the ultimate moment of glory and triumph – a celebration of the crowning achievement of Waltrip's career –there was only sadness.

Though he won another Daytona 500 and a pair of Talladega races, Waltrip concluded his full-time racing career without ever really getting the appreciation he sought.

Now semi-retired, Waltrip still shows up at Daytona and Talladega – his two best tracks – in order to perhaps remind people he really isn't that bad at the whole racing thing.

And then Thursday happened. It was a mistake that was entirely avoidable – which Waltrip knew as soon as it happened.

But the heartbreak of embarrassing himself and letting down loyal sponsor Aaron's and the new Hillman Racing team had to be nearly unbearable.

To not feel some measure of sympathy for the man would be to ignore the fact we all make dumb mistakes at times. In this case, it was a particularly public error.

Sure, Waltrip makes goofy commercials and has a TV persona that may be a bit overenthusiastic for some tastes.

But the guy cares deeply about NASCAR. He has a big heart and has poured much of it into racing, only to endure numerous setbacks in his career.

You can certainly add Thursday's crash to that list – and perhaps put it near the top.

After the crash, Waltrip made a mandatory visit to the infield care center and emerged to a gaggle of cameras and microphones and recorders ready to document his response.

He needed a minute to collect himself.

So he took a seat on his golf cart in full view of the media and pulled his blue hat down to shield his eyes from the world.

When he lifted his cap, he winced. Yes, it had really happened. And no, there was no one to blame but himself.

The moment was raw, and it was painful. Reality bites.

Michael Waltrip had missed the Daytona 500.

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