DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Michael Waltrip apologized Thursday for his team’s role in NASCAR’s biggest cheating scandal, saying he was so embarrassed he almost pulled out of Daytona 500 preparations.
Waltrip, who lost two key crew members Wednesday when NASCAR penalized his team for using a fuel additive, said he had to be talked into racing by his wife and Toyota officials who are seething that Waltrip tainted their Nextel Cup debut.
“I didn’t want to damage the integrity of the sport further by going out there and having people think, ‘What’s he doing out there?’” Waltrip said. “I came real close to not running today.”
Waltrip, a two-time Daytona 500 winner, needs to race his way into NASCAR’s premier event in a qualifying race Thursday.
After his car failed inspection Sunday, Waltrip said he was devastated when his 9-year-old wondered why her father had cheated.
“That will hurt you pretty bad,” Waltrip said. “I’m ready to bear all responsibility for what happened. You can’t hurt me any worse than I am right now.”
Waltrip’s team was one of five busted for breaking the rules before the season opener _ the sport’s most significant crackdown on cheating and a clear message the sanctioning body no longer will tolerate teams breaking the rules.
“It’s been rough on everybody; we’re here to celebrate a race,” said NASCAR competition director Robin Pemberton. “Instead, we’re busy dealing with all of this.”
Waltrip’s crew chief and team director were suspended indefinitely after a fuel additive was found during inspection. But Waltrip, docked 100 points, will be allowed to participate in Thursday’s races that determine the field for the 500.
“I don’t think we’ll ever put this behind us, but we’ll try to do better in the future,” Waltrip said.
David Hyder, his crew chief, was thrown out of the garage and fined $100,000 — the largest monetary fine in NASCAR history. Team director Bobby Kennedy also was kicked out.
Waltrip blamed an unidentified individual or individuals within his team, adding that no one had been fired.
“We haven’t fired anyone, nor do we plan on firing anyone until we know what happened,” he said. “We’re aggressively trying to find out what happened.”
He emphasized Toyota had nothing to do with his team’s actions.
“This is my fault,” he said. “You can’t be skeptical of Toyota. You have to look straight at me.”