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Waltrip defies expectations

The Winston Cup series is back at Daytona International Speedway tonight, so it will be no surprise to see Michael Waltrip near the front of the pack.

On the track, yes.

But in the standings who'da thunk?

Ranked fifth in the championship points, Waltrip is quietly enjoying the best season of his 18-year career. Nearly halfway into the 36-race schedule, his performance is as lively as his personality.

Waltrip, who won the season-opening Daytona 500, trails points leader Matt Kenseth by 372, but is just 198 behind second-place Jeff Gordon. And Waltrip has no intention of fading.

No matter what people expect.

"After four races, I lost a few places in the points and people said this team is starting to fade into Bolivia," Waltrip said. "That is everyone's attitude today; that is what they expect. I do not give a lot of people credit for their judgment as far as my situation goes. I know more about it than most."

Waltrip, the younger brother of three-time Winston Cup champion Darrell Waltrip, was a journeyman driver for much of his career, popular for his wacky sense of humor and bubbly personality. He went his first 462 starts without a victory in a points race.

But since joining Dale Earnhardt Inc. in 2001, Waltrip has won three times _ all at Daytona. He is a two-time Daytona 500 winner (2001 and 2003) and the defending winner of the Pepsi 400. Tonight, he will attempt to win a third consecutive race at Daytona, a feat only Cale Yarborough accomplished in 1967-68.

Impressive credentials.

"You don't worry about stuff like that until it's done," Waltrip said. "That's not what motivates you. What motivates you is to try to beat everyone else. I never really thought about being a two-time Daytona 500 champion; I was just there to win the Daytona 500."

The previous two seasons, Waltrip was not much of a threat beyond Daytona and Talladega, superspeedways where he and DEI teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. have won eight of the past 10 races. But this season, Waltrip is not just a restrictor-plate racer.

He is consistent.

"I just want to keep doing my job and we feel our best stuff is still to come," said Waltrip, who recently turned 40. "I like it that no one thinks we will or no one talks much about us. It does not bother me at all. It is a little disappointing to NAPA to have a team that is top five in points and most generally the only comments are, "When is this team going to make their reservations to Bolivia?' "

This time last year, Waltrip ranked 14th. His best championship finish in 17 seasons was 12th, with owner Chuck Rider in 1994 and '95. And last year, mired in an early-season slump, Waltrip's job at DEI was rumored to be in jeopardy.

But this year, he and crew chief Richard "Slugger" Labbe are clicking. Waltrip is racing with confidence at every track. He has six top 10s, including four top fives, through 16 races. He has been running at the finish of every race.

"I think that he's really stepped up and his team has stepped up," four-time Winston Cup champion Jeff Gordon said. "You always think of Michael as being really good on the superspeedways, but I've seen him perform very well on the other tracks. He's consistent, and when you're consistent in this series, you're going to be up in the points."

Waltrip and Jimmie Johnson are the only drivers to rank among the top 10 the entire season, with Waltrip never lower than eighth. Waltrip attributes his success to a team that gives him fast cars, allowing him to show what he can do.

"It's all about the car and the team," Waltrip said. "We've been able to get our team squared away and Slugger has done a great job preparing our cars so I am able to go out and enjoy the fruits of all that labor.

"You can't wave a magic wand over anything, say, "You're 40 and that's what did it.' There are no tricks in this business. It's all about work, chemistry and communication. I'm just fortunate that I got in this position with a great team and that is why I'm able to perform."

He's not alone.

Earnhardt Jr., in his fourth season, also is more consistent, ranked third in the standings with one win, seven top fives and 10 top 10s. The DEI drivers seem to be feeding off one another's success, challenging one another to improve.

"I see (Earnhardt's team) making ground and I want to make ground too," Waltrip said.

"They have been a little bit better than us all year. We need to close that gap a little bit. Not a ton, just a little bit."