Daytona Beach, Fla. Michael Waltrip cheated, apologized and then vindicated himself the only way he knew how: He drove his way into the Daytona 500.
The two-time Daytona winner - almost too embarrassed to get behind the wheel after his team was caught in NASCAR's biggest cheating scandal - capped a roller-coaster week Thursday by earning a spot in the Great American Race.
"I know I am good enough to do it without having any cheating on my car," he said. "I don't need it. I can go fast without it. I think we proved that today."
Waltrip's eighth-place finish in the first qualifying race at Daytona International Speedway was good enough to get him in the field.
Because of NASCAR's complicated qualifying format for this event, it also guaranteed rookie David Reutimann a spot along with the two other Toyota Camrys that Waltrip owns. Reutimann would have had to race his way in otherwise.
But there was little celebration at the finish line, where Waltrip sat stone-faced inside his car as he battled a wave of conflicting emotions.
"I'm probably the most depressed guy you have ever seen make the Daytona 500," he said with a sigh. "I'm thankful. I'm sad. I'm happy at the same time. Daytona does that to you."
So does cheating.
Waltrip's humiliating debut with Toyota began Sunday when NASCAR found a suspicious substance in his intake manifold. After three days of examination, it was determined to be a fuel additive designed to dramatically boost horsepower in a car that previously had struggled with speed.
NASCAR tossed out two key Waltrip employees, handed crew chief David Hyder a $100,000 fine - the largest in series history - and docked Waltrip 100 points.
But NASCAR didn't kick him out of the garage, something other drivers questioned.
"To tell you the truth, I think he got off easy," Joe Nemechek said. "It gave the sport a black eye. I think Michael Waltrip is very fortunate to be in this race."
Waltrip expected that reaction from some and said president Mike Helton encouraged him to race Thursday when all Waltrip wanted to do was go home and hide.
"I came real close to not racing today," Waltrip said hours before his qualifying event. "I just felt like there would be a cloud over whatever I accomplished today because of what happened."
He was contrite at his morning news conference, and that didn't change after he secured his spot in the field.
Toyota officials, conspicuously absent in his morning apology session, gathered around him after the race.
"I couldn't be happier for Michael and his organization. ... What a turn of events," said Lee White, general manager of Toyota Racing Development. "Michael Waltrip carried two cars in - that's 7,000 pounds - a pretty heavy load for the guy."
Teammate Dale Jarrett rushed to Waltrip's side on a chaotic pit road, grabbing his boss in a bear hug.
"Proud of you. Want you to know that," Jarrett said.
"I appreciate that," Waltrip said, lips quivering.
"I knew you could handle it, anyway," Jarrett replied.
But someone on Waltrip's crew thought otherwise, worrying so much that Waltrip wouldn't make the race that the team member broke the code of the Nextel Cup garage by tampering with the fuel.
NASCAR suspended Hyder and competition director Bobby Kennedy indefinitely; Waltrip blamed an unidentified individual or individuals within his team, adding that no one had been fired.
But Waltrip's profession of innocence has not gone unquestioned - even by former teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr.
"There's a fine line there because when the driver is the owner he should have quite a bit of knowledge of what's going on," Earnhardt said. "It makes me want to kind of believe Michael when he says he was unaware of it. As a driver, I would take that for what it's worth. But it's hard to imagine as an owner that you wouldn't know something about that."
Jarrett defended his boss, however, pointing out Waltrip has worked tirelessly to put together the flagship Toyota team.
"He's worn so many hats coming in here. It's incredible," Jarrett said. "He proved right there how good a race driver he is. I told him before the race that if anybody here could get the car in he could do it, and he went out and did it."
Waltrip now will focus on Sunday's race and trying to restore his image.
"We've just got to start trying to rebuild people's faith and trust," he said. "For all those fans who bought a NAPA hat or a Michael Waltrip shirt, I just hope you can wear it proudly again soon."