The 1989 Daytona 500 came down to fuel mileage, and we rolled the dice. We stayed out, took the lead with three laps to go and made it to the checkered flag. It was real close on fuel; in fact, the thing ran out of gas as I pulled into Victory Lane. In 1981 my very public separation from the DiGard Racing team was finally behind me, and I was driving for Junior Johnson. We won 12 races, and I finally won my first Winston Cup championship.
Soon after Waltrip joined the Winston Cup circuit at the 1972 Winston 500, he earned the nickname "Jaws" for keeping his big mouth open despite failing to win his first race until his 50th start. His words got him in trouble early in his career when he wasn't winning, but with at least one victory a year from 1975 through 1989, only Richard Petty and David Pearson won more Winston Cup races than Waltrip's 84 wins. "Ol' DW" earned the respect of fans and drivers with back-to-back NASCAR Winston Cup Series Most Popular Driver Awards in 1989 and 1990. In 1998 he was named one of NASCAR's 50 greatest drivers.
After a 29-year racing career, one of only seven drivers to win at least three Winston Cup series titles and the only five-time winner of the Coca-Cola 600, Waltrip is making the transition from the track to the booth. In 2001 he has a full-time ride on FOX television, doing what some say he does best: talk.
Darrell Waltrip's storied Winston Cup career began in May 1972 at the Talladega Motor Speedway in Alabama. Waltrip rolled onto the track in this Holman-Moodyâ€"prepared '71-bodied Mercury Cyclone. The car was originally built in 1966 as a Ford-bodied car, which Mario Andretti drove to victory in the '67 Daytona 500. Later the car made sporadic appearances in various events until Waltrip's sponsor, Terminal Transport, bought the car from Holman-Moody for $12,500. The deal also included a handful of spare parts.
Waltrip drove the car in selected events until 1973, after which time it was put in storage. In 1989 Hurricane Hugo blew a tree onto the car, causing substantial damage. It was later restored by a group of veteran NASCAR veterans to its original race-ready condition. By today's standards, the car has several unique characteristics. The nose, engine, interior, and back-end configuration would, of course, not be legal by today's superspeedway rules.
Two years of commentating on NASCAR racing for FOX Sports has given Darrell Waltrip a mighty competitive itch; and thanks to FOX, Stacy Compton, Mark Melling and James Harris, Waltrip is going to scratch it. Waltrip, a three-time NASCAR Winston Cup Series champion, will drive a Melling and Harris-owned Dodge truck in the Advance Auto Parts 250 NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series race at Martinsville Speedway on April 13, a source close to the deal said Friday evening. "He still misses it desperately," Waltrip's associate, who wished to remain anonymous, said. "He still has that fire and he wants to prove something to all those new fans who didn't get to see him in his prime — plus, he sees all of what he calls his 'old rowdy buddies' like Bill Elliott winning poles and races..."
Compton drove the truck last season in four races and had four top-10 finishes and the Bud Pole Award at Phoenix. Due to a conflict with the Pepsi 300 at Nashville Superspeedway, he could not drive the truck at Martinsville, so tipped Waltrip on its availability. A Martinsville spokesman said that when the rumor of Waltrip competing in the event first surfaced, the track noticed a spike in ticket sales. Waltrip, whose last Winston Cup win came in the 1992 Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway, negotiated a release from his Busch Series broadcasting responsibilities at Nashville in order to make the start. He plans to test with Compton and his A.J. Foyt Racing NWCS team at Martinsville and with the truck team at Greenville-Pickens Speedway — a track similar to Martinsville located outside Greenville, S.C.
Waltrip scored his best finish of five top-10s in that division — fifth — in his own truck at Martinsville in September 1996. His last truck start came at Las Vegas Motor Speedway when he finished 20th in the Nov. 3, 1996 season finale. Waltrip retired from competitive driving following the 2000 Winston Cup season. The close of his career was a matter of frustration, as he used seven past champion's provisionals — including four in the first five races of the season. In his last start he used one and finished 34th in the NAPA 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Martinsville was one of Waltrip's better race tracks during his career. He won 11 times — five in the spring race and six more in the fall. His final Martinsville score, which came in fall 1989, was his third straight in that event and completed a season sweep. He expects to announce more details about the one-race return with Melling and Harris on Tuesday.
One of NASCAR's most popular announcers is now one of NASCAR's more popular race drivers. Or is that the other way around? Darrell Waltrip has come out of retirement this season to run periodically in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series. His "debut" was a fairly impressive run in the Advance Auto Parts 250 at Martinsville in April.
Some things about the new D.W. are different than the Ol' DW. For example, remember the lusty booing he received in his prime from fans who hated his brash tongue? At Martinsville, his introduction rendered the loudest ovation of the day. But some things never change. When a broken rear-end pinion gear ended his run early Waltrip proclaimed with typical Jaws braggadocio, "I was gonna win this race. We had the best truck today. I could have walked right through the field and got to the front."
Actually there was more than a hint of truth in D.W.'s claim. He was very fast. Being loose in short runs was a problem in time trials and on restarts. And Morgan Shepherd spun D.W. on lap three. But otherwise, Darrell's Duck Head Footwear-sponsored Dodge No. 17 was a rocket. During his 87 laps Waltrip passed more trucks than anyone else, and his 21.069-second clocking on lap 16 was the race's fourth-fastest lap.
Waltrip's return adds some much-needed spice to NASCAR's troubled truck division. Advance's Mike Paris was having trouble giving away sponsor tickets for the Martinsville show until Waltrip's entry was announced. Then Paris's entire allocation got gobbled up in 48 hours. And Waltrip had the unprecedented gravitas to unveil his comeback plan through a very unusual forum: Don Imus's nationally syndicated radio/TV simulcast. Waltrip is a regular on the program, a talk show usually devoted to political discussion. That 55-year-old Waltrip can preach NASCAR and truck racing to that audience is groundbreaking stuff.
And preaching is what Ol' D.W. has always done best. In fact, he justifies his comeback by saying it will make him a better announcer on Fox television. "I don't ever want to get to the point where I say somethin' on TV, and someone says, Well, how does he know?' It never hurts to take a refresher course and to have fresh information." For the record, Waltrip was credited with a 34th-place finish behind Martinsville winner Dennis Setzer.
Waltrip's comeback drew a surprisingly large crowd at Martinsville, so truck promoters everywhere are likely to try to woo him now. But D.W. is probably going to avoid fast superspeedways, picking and choosing lower-speed short tracks instead. And the only one who's going to be wooing Waltrip is his wife, Stevie. "I hope the redhead [Stevie] had fun today," Darrell said after his Martinsville run, "and I hope she lets me do this again."
When DW exploded onto the NASCAR scene in 1973, he was young, brash and braggadocious. None of sport's big four stars -- Richard Petty, David Pearson, Bobby Allison and Cale Yarborough -- much cared for him, but only one went out of his way to voice such an opinion early and often... Yarborough. "He was always running his mouth, and he was always eating up race cars," says the three-time champ. "So I nicknamed him 'Jaws' because he was always flapping his jaws. I respected him as a driver, but I wasn't going to let him run over me, too."
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