It’s been nothing but bad news for Michael Waltrip recently. First NASCAR levied unprecedented penalties against Michael Waltrip Racing after it ruled that Brian Vickers and Clint Boyer were ordered to manipulate the outcome of a race to get teammate Martin Truex Jr. into the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
Then NAPA Auto Parts announced it was ending its $18 million annual sponsorship of Truex’s No. 56 car. Truex was replaced in the Chase by Ryan Newman.
Waltrip had the chance to briefly put the bad news behind him Saturday morning, when he signed autographs for an hour at a Wal-Mart near Kansas Speedway.
He signed everything from cars to flags while taking pictures and goofing around the younger autograph seekers.
Waltrip has always enjoyed fan interaction, but it has meant a bit more in light of recent developments.
“People are sweet. People are supportive. They appreciate who we are as an organization,” Waltrip said. “I was kidding with someone a couple weeks ago, I said, ‘Evidently I’ve never met someone with Twitter, because everybody I meet is nice and supportive and sorry for what all we’ve gone through.’ It’s really nice to get out and feel the emotion.”
Betty Clark, from Council Bluffs, Iowa, is a self-confessed “Wal-Nut.” (Fans who are nuts about Waltrip.) She got Waltrip’s autograph before, and even visited his team’s garage in Charlotte, NC.
Yet she still waited 90 minutes to be at the front of the line.
“He built this up from the bottom from nothing and it could all be gone because of this. I think the press and social media blew it way out of proportion as far as I’m concerned,” Clark said. “But I’m biased.”
Waltrip’s future is uncertain. His team could have a decidedly different look next season, and the stigma from this most recent controversy won’t be leaving anytime soon.
He plans to enjoy the ride, like always.
“I really haven’t changed. Every race I’ll go out in the infield in the afternoon or evening and (play bags) with fans and have a beer with them and that’s not changed,” Waltrip said. “I’ll do that this afternoon again. It’s just fun getting to see folks.”