When he was planning his year's limited schedule in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series which includes runs in all four superspeedway events, Michael Waltrip probably wasn't expecting to also have dance moves on his mind as he heads into this weekend's GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway.
Now predominantly sticking to his role as team co-owner of Michael Waltrip Racing and working as part of FoxSports commentary team for the weekend's NASCAR events, the 51-year-old now finds himself having to find time to wear two extra hats. Not only is he driving the teams' #66 entry out on Sunday in Alabama, but he'll also be once again showing his moves on the dance-floor some 24 hours later in Los Angeles as part of the celebrity line-up on ABC television's Dancing with the Stars competition, which is currently in its sixth week.
Maybe Waltrip hadn't expected to survive this long into the show's run with dance partner Emma Slater, and had thought that he would have been freed up in plenty of time to concentrate on the driving. But that doesn't mean he intends to slack off in either role this weekend.
"My time on Dancing with the Stars has been an incredible experience. It is obviously fun, but also a lot of hard work," he said. "When I get a free moment from the car and my television responsibilities, I am going to go dance with Emma and work on our dance.
"I am disappointed we didn't get better scores [last] week because I thought we had a really fun dance," he said. "I think it was entertaining, it was everything I had hoped it would be but we got terrible scores. The pressure is on Emma and I to put together a dance that will get us great scores so I can continue to keep dancing. That is exactly what I plan on doing."
Waltrip added that he felt his appearance on the prime time TV show was managing to have a positive effect on drawing a new audience into trying out NASCAR racing. "As an industry, we have always tried to find ways to get in the mainstream conversation. When 15 million people watch me outside of my comfort zone every week, I would say we definitely are getting in the conversation!"
But when Waltrip's backed into a corner and all is said and done, he's still most definitely a racer first and a dancer second.
"Despite everything else, when I get to Talladega, it will be all about being a race car driver and the responsibilities that go along with that privilege," he admitted. "Two years ago I almost won at Talladega and I feel like I'm going there with a chance to win again, and that's the best feeling in the world.
"The only thing race car drivers want is the opportunity to sit down in a car that can win. Most semi-retired, 51-year-old drivers don't get this amazing opportunity so I don't take this lightly. I will be totally focused on winning
"That's what makes this weekend at Talladega so special to me," he added. "I return to my real passion, working with the men and women of Michael Waltrip Racing, driving a car capable of winning a NASCAR Sprint Cup race and working in the television booth talking about the sport I love. I'm going to be right back in my element and I am truly blessed to get right back where I want to be."
Waltrip is also making this weekend's race much more personal to him than usual by virtue of the MyAFibStory.com sponsorship that will be on the MWR #66 Toyota in an effort to raise awareness about the risks and the treatment options of arterial fibrillation, which has struck the Waltrip family very close to home in the past.
"My mom unfortunately suffered a stroke 25 years ago due to AFib," he explained. "So life for mom today is very challenging. She's stuck in a wheelchair and isn't able to get up and enjoy the things in life that she would like to."
Today, Margaret Waltrip required 24-hour care, which is provided through a a combination of hired caregivers and Michael's sister Connie Waltrip Brinkley, who lives next door to their mother.
"Michael Waltrip Racing and I have partnered with Janssen Pharmaceuticals to raise awareness of AFib," he continued. "2.7 million people live with AFib. Mom was one of those that had a stroke as a result of her AFib."
Waltrip helped kick off AFib awareness month in September through the news media and by encouraging fans to visit MyAFibStory.com where they could upload photos of themselves supporting AFib awareness, many of which will appear on the #66 this weekend as part of its specially designed livery.
Waltrip himself also contributed a video about his mother to explain the condition, although Margaret Waltrip herself took a little persuading.
"I went to my mom and said, 'They're going to make a video about you, Mom,'" said Waltrip. "At first, as any 87-year-old probably would be, it didn't seem like the best idea to her. But the more we talked about it, she said, 'Son, if I could help one person not be in a wheelchair because of my story, then it's worth doing.'"
Waltrip's car this weekend is the same chassis that Brian Vickers raced to fourth place with at Talladega in May and also to second at Daytona in July. Vickers himself will be at work for MWR again this weekend behind the wheel of the #55 car, while the team's third driver Clint Bowyer will once more be driving the #15 entry.
Vickers scored his first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series win at Talladega back in 2006 when he was driving for Hendrick Motorsports, and he comes into this week's event as one of only two drivers in the field with two top-five finishes in the three restrictor plate races to date this season.
"Talladega will always be a special place to me," said Vickers. "I think every driver remembers that first victory and the track where it happened. Talladega is also a place where we have finished well.
"I don't know if there is any great strategy to Talladega," he added. "In May, track position made so much difference at the end of the race. Once we got to the front we could stay there. Clint and I got up there and I think we each had a real shot at the win.
"I can say all the standard things about Talladega: Stay out of trouble, be there at the end and have a good drafting partner. But at the end of the race you also need a lot of luck. If you do everything right and get a little luck anyone can win."