Sun, Jul 17, 2005 - Page 22 News List

Michael Waltrip decides to leave team Earnhardt

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

Michael Waltrip, whose first big victory came as Dale Earnhardt died in a wreck at the end of the 2001 Daytona 500, said Friday that he would not return next season to the team that bears Earnhardt's name.

Waltrip, 42, said in a news conference at New Hampshire International Speedway that he had decided to leave Dale Earnhardt Inc after five seasons because it was unclear to him what the company planned to do with its NASCAR Nextel Cup race teams in 2006.

Waltrip, who ended a 462-race streak without a victory when he won the 2001 Daytona 500 in a car owned by Earnhardt, said he wanted to explore his options for the 2006 season.

"It's sad to say that I'm not going to be at DEI anymore," Waltrip said as he prepared for Sunday's New England 300 in Loudon, N.H. "But I'm really proud of winning some races for the team that Dale picked me to drive for."

DEI said it expected to field Nextel Cup cars next season for Dale Earnhardt Jr., the 30-year-old son of Dale Earnhardt, and for Martin Truex Jr., 25, a New Jersey native who is driving in the Busch Series. DEI also hoped to field the No. 15 car driven by Waltrip.

Waltrip, who had worked with DEI since May 1 on getting a contract extension, said he had not received offers from other teams.

Waltrip is the younger brother of Darrell Waltrip, who was a 3-time champion in NASCAR's premier series. Michael Waltrip scuffled while driving for four other teams before joining DEI before the 2001 season, and his hiring by Earnhardt was met with some skepticism.

But Waltrip won his first race for DEI -- a race that became unforgettable for another reason. With only Waltrip and his son ahead of him on the track, Dale Earnhardt slammed into the Turn 4 wall at Daytona International Speedway. He died instantly.

Waltrip then became the sidekick of Dale Earnhardt Jr., but he also succeeded at tracks that mandated the use of restrictor plates to hold down speeds. He won the Pepsi 400 in July 2002 at Daytona, the 2003 Daytona 500 and a September 2003 race at Talladega, Alabama.

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