SONOMA -- As Michael Waltrip leaned into the race car he owns, to shake the hand of the winner of the Toyota/Save Mart 350 on Sunday, Waltrip saw Martin Truex Jr. in tears. This was Truex's first victory since George W. Bush was president. That was in 2007, 218 races in Truex's rearview mirror. Waltrip saw the tears and one thought immediately came to his mind.

"I know how you feel, brother," Waltrip said.

If absence indeed makes the heart grow fonder, no one in motorsports loves or appreciates a victory more than Michael Waltrip.

As a driver Waltrip needed 462 NASCAR races to win his first Cup event. For his entire career as a driver, Waltrip won just four times in 772 starts. As co-owner of Michael Waltrip Racing (MWR), Truex's victory Sunday was just Waltrip's sixth in 570 races as owner.

So as a NASCAR driver and owner, Waltrip has won 10 times in 1,342 starts. That's a winning percentage of .007. That number may appeal to James Bond but even a good-defense, no-hit shortstop in baseball would reject that average. How can Waltrip, now 50, stay alive in the sport? It's simple.

Waltrip represents the power of persuasion, the power of a magnetic personality. In that, Waltrip has only one equal in NASCAR: Richard Petty. Ever since Waltrip broke into NASCAR in 1985, he has been the guy the media and sponsors have sought out. Need analysis? A funny quote? A wisecrack? An unplanned 10-minute autograph session? Someone who can crawl into a hauler with a television crew and fill up a rain delay with anecdotes? Waltrip is good to go. No smirk. No grimace. Bring it on.

Dale Earnhardt and Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart may have been the faces of NASCAR all these years but Michael Waltrip was the voice. Yes, of course, Waltrip has that famous last name. His brother Darrell is a NASCAR Hall of Famer. But what Waltrip really works to his advantage is his ability to engage and make a total stranger comfortable in a conversation.

Waltrip just oozes down-home charm. He's Kentucky-casual (hometown Owensboro) all the way.

"You're looking at winners that are totally thankful we're here," said Waltrip in the post-race press conference, "and while your (media) questions might seem repetitive at times and some of them not so great, ... no offense ... but you can just keep asking them. We'll keep answering them because we love being here. If you got any more questions just let us know. Martin has got a beer and I've got a goblet."

About six times Waltrip said something to the effect "I got myself a goblet" and each time Waltrip took another sip of wine from the Sonoma Raceway's victory chalice. He took 10 sips during the press conference. Later Waltrip would cradle the goblet in his hands. When he spoke, even when he would interrupt Truex and crew chief Chad Johnston, the anticipation in the room was palatable. Michael is going to say something amusing, interesting.

"I don't have to be me until Friday," said Waltrip smiling, looking at the wine before another sip, doing what would seem so natural and honest to anyone in his position — he's going to enjoy an adult beverage or two in the next few days.

"So tell us, Martin, what it was like to break your winless streak?" a question was asked. Truex didn't get a chance to answer.

"That ain't no streak!" Waltrip interrupted to a room full of chuckles. Yeah, everyone knows 462 winless trumps 218 winless every time and, again, that's Waltrip being Waltrip. He ain't too proud to self-deprecate. He doesn't shy away from his futility and he doesn't need anyone telling him about what rough times are like. Waltrip remembers all too well the very worst of times, when his racing team was about to disappear in 2007.

The educated guess in the garage was $50 million, that his team was $50 million in the red, that his team was headed south in a hurry. Then billionaire Robert Kauffman came to the rescue. A London-based investment executive, Kauffman became good friends with Waltrip, believed in Waltrip and threw his money behind the man.

Now that's what you call charisma. Waltrip didn't have the greatest track record of success and yet a man of unquestionable global achievement partnered with him. In that situation you have to be a special person to project confidence and optimism, especially when there isn't a Stewart or a Gordon or a Johnson or an Edwards or a Keselowski in your garage. And until Sunday, a NAPA-sponsored Waltrip car hadn't won since 2003.

Fact further, to date 17 drivers have driven for MWR since the team began in 2002. That's a lot of bodies, a lot of movement, a lot of mix and match to see what works out. Clint Bowyer and Truex, and possibly Brian Vickers will make up the current, and what the boss hopes will be the last, Waltrip team.

"Martin is second to none behind the wheel," Waltrip said. "I feel this is just the beginning of something."

It could be. Or it could be the beginning of another stretch in which the United States will change presidents before a Waltrip car wins another Cup race. That would be the sour, long-term view and it is not without historical merit. However, spend 10 minutes around Michael Waltrip and the alternative perspective quickly becomes apparent.

You like Waltrip. You know that doesn't count for beans when Truex is going 200 miles an hour as he will in a few weeks at Daytona. Affable has nothing to do with pit strategy. Charm won't run down and pass Stewart. That's what's so interesting about Michael Waltrip. How do you root against affability and charm? You don't.

You can reach Staff Columnist Bob Padecky at 521-5223 or bob.padecky@pressdemocrat.com.