The Sprint All-Star Race might never have a more unlikely winner than Michael Waltrip in 1996.
Saturday’s all-star race at Charlotte Motor Speedway will mark the 20th anniversary of Waltrip’s victory. At the time, Waltrip, now a television commentator, was better known as star Darrell Waltrip’s younger brother, an underachiever who had yet to win a Cup race in 309 starts.
The all-star race was, and remains, a non-points exhibition. But that mattered little to Michael Waltrip as he stood in Victory Lane after holding off Rusty Wallace in the Wood Brothers Racing’s iconic No. 21 Ford.
“I smell like champagne,” Waltrip recalled telling a reporter who had just questioned the validity of the victory, coming as it did in a non-points race. “I’ve got confetti on me and I just won one of the biggest races of the year with the Wood Brothers.
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“I swear it feels a whole lot like a win to me.”
Waltrip, then 33, came to the Concord track without a victory in 10-plus years on NASCAR’s premier circuit. Although he felt better about his chances that season, he was still just in 14th place in the standings. A fifth-place at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway a few weeks earlier also gave him reason for optimism.
“We were probably a little under the radar,” said Waltrip, who had to qualify for what was then called the Winston Select by finishing in the top-five in the Winston Open qualifying race. He did just that, finishing fifth.
An Open lesson
Equally as important, Waltrip had discovered something valuable during the Open. He could coax more speed from his car when driving on the bottom lane of the 1.5-mile oval.
Waltrip used that groove to progress through the field during the main event. And when leaders Dale Earnhardt and Terry Labonte bumped in Turn 1 early in the race’s final segment, Waltrip took advantage.
“I was confident I could cut to the bottom and make it stick,” said Waltrip. “If I wasn’t confident like that, I would never have won.”
Waltrip spent the final eight laps of the race fending off Wallace – another of that era’s big names – by 1.056 seconds.
“Those might have been the best eight laps I drove in my career,” Waltrip said.
Enough for a house
Waltrip earned $211,200 with the victory, not nearly as much as the $1 million that will go to Saturday’s All-Star Race winner. But it was enough that he was able to buy his parents a house with the winnings.
Waltrip had to wait five years to win his first points race – the 2001 Daytona 500, which will always be remembered as the race during which his friend and mentor Earnhardt was killed.
Waltrip, who still races occasionally on the Dayton and Talladega superspeedways, has four career victories.
But the all-star race in 1996 will always be meaningful.
“It was validating,” said Waltrip. “Now that my career is mostly over, I look back and see a lot of races I could have won, but didn’t. So the ones that I did win become more and more special.”