INDIANAPOLIS – Dust off the mantle, Buffy, because Michael plans to add to it.
With a strong third-place qualifying effort Saturday, Michael Waltrip made it very clear that he intends to win Sunday's Allstate 400 at the Brickyard at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
"That trophy would go real well between my two Daytona 500 trophies," said Waltrip, who won the Daytona 500 in 2001 and 2003.
"It would be cool," Waltrip added. "The Daytona 500 is the biggest race and this one is probably second. I would be honored if I could figure out some way to win the race on Sunday, as would everyone. I wouldn't be able to put into words what it would mean to win here."
To which outside polesitter Jeremy Mayfield, who joined Waltrip in the post-qualifying press conference, quipped, "I've got two Pocono trophies, too, that would look good with this one between."
Light-heartedness aside, Waltrip had a good feeling that he'd qualify well after being seventh-fastest in Saturday morning's two-hour practice session.
"I expected to get first," Waltrip said. "We thought we were really loose when we practiced our qualifying run in practice, so Tony [crew chief Tony Eury Jr.] and the guys tightened it up for me. I left pit road with a lot of confidence that they had done the job that they needed to in order for me to drive as hard and have a chance to get the pole."
Waltrip said he wasn't happy with himself because he drove tentatively at times during his run due to a loose condition, but that might have ended up being the right approach.
"Then I saw Rusty [Wallace] crash and I thought that maybe I tried just as hard as I should," Waltrip said. "Maybe if I tried a little harder, I would have wrecked."
Polesitter Elliott Sadler beat Waltrip to the pole by .3 seconds, covering the 2½-mile IMS oval at 184.116 mph. Waltrip turned his lap at 182.975 mph.
"Elliott beat me by three-tenths, and there was no way I could have done anything that drastically different to beat him," Waltrip said. "So, I'm happy – I didn't crash, I couldn't beat Elliott and I got third."
With last month's announcement that he will be leaving Dale Earnhardt Inc., at the end of this season, Waltrip has been relegated to lame-duck status in the No. 15 Chevrolet. He continues to search for a new ride for next season and is optimistic something may break for him soon.
"I'm getting closer, I think," Waltrip said. "I have a couple of meetings this week that might shed some light on where I'll be at. Maybe by Watkins Glen or shortly thereafter, I'll be able to tell what I'm going to do, but I just don't have it all worked out yet. But I feel pretty good about where I'll wind up."
Saturday's effort marks Waltrip's third top-three qualifying spot this season. When asked if his qualifying position at Indianapolis could be the start of his swan-song from DEI – the beginning of an unofficial farewell tour, so to speak – Waltrip downplayed the notion.
"I don't feel that swan thing right now," he said. "We have a half-year to go and Tony Jr. and I have committed to one another that we would race our rear ends off until the last race of the year. I think at Homestead, it'll be special to have it."
Waltrip currently sits 19th in the standings, 250 points behind 10th-place holder Dale Jarrett, with six races remaining to qualify for the Chase for the Nextel Cup. While Waltrip mathematically still has a chance to make the Chase, it would have been easier if not for some bad luck in recent races. But blown tires – his own and those of other drivers that impacted his run – have cost him plenty of points recently.
"I've just fallen on some hard times here lately, but we're certainly thinking our car performs well enough that we can make a run of it," Waltrip said.
Don't expect Waltrip to be a premature quitter. He denied one of this weekend's hottest rumors that he will replace Jason Leffler in the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 11 Chevrolet starting at Watkins Glen.
When asked directly by Yahoo! Sports, Waltrip emphatically said that he intends to honor the remainder of his contract – unless he's fired.
"No, I would not ever [leave early], no matter what," Waltrip said. "I would if they ran me off. I mean, I wouldn't hang around there. But I wouldn't do anything that would jeopardize what NAPA has put behind me and that team and what the contracts say that I will do.
"So, I can't imagine a scenario that you could paint that I would leave [DEI early]."