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Waltrip's tour sad end to outstanding career

Recent converts may know Darrell Waltrip as the old man trundling at the back. But he was once atop NASCAR.

By KEVIN KELLY

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 29, 2000


Michael Waltrip got to know his brother much the same way the rest of the country did the last three decades.

He watched from behind track fences and stared at the television.

"That's kind of how I grew up with Darrell, watching from afar," said Michael, who is 16 years younger than his brother and drives in the Winston Cup series. "Nowadays, we're buddies. We're more like friends now than we've ever been."

As NASCAR continues to enjoy unprecedented popularity and attracts new fans each year, Darrell Waltrip struggles just to qualify for races during his "Victory Tour" career finale.

The three-time Winston Cup champion visits the Daytona International Speedway for the final time as a driver for Saturday's Pepsi 400 and Michael hopes the focus will be on his brother's past and not his present.

Qualifying for the race starts at 8 tonight.

"I was watching Pebble Beach the other day and Jack Nicklaus was making what was maybe his final appearance in the U.S. Open, and he was struggling home," Michael said Tuesday. "He got in on an exemption, and they said it could be his last one. If we can't figure out how to get Jack into one more, this could be it.

"I think about our sport, and I say, why can't people be talking about Darrell that way? Why can't they be saying, "Man, this is going to be the last time we see Darrell Waltrip at Daytona? Please just grasp this moment, he's meant so much to this sport. He's going to be gone."

Waltrip, 54, hasn't won a race since the Southern 500 in 1992 at Darlington. He hasn't won a pole position since 1995 at Atlanta.

He has just two top-five and eight top-10 finishes since 1994.

"We're followers, not leaders, right now," he said. "I've never been a follower. I've always been a trendsetter. When I showed up (to a track), it was like, "That's what Darrell has done. That's what we're going to do.' It hasn't been that way for a while."

Especially this season, when Waltrip has qualified in the top 36 just eight times and made the field five times through provisionals, exemptions based on past performances.

He has finished in the top 25 just once and is 40th in the points standings as the driver of the No. 66 Ford owned by Haas/Carter Motorsports.

"There's nothing more disgusting, more discouraging than to sit down at the end of the year and say we never even came close, we didn't have a chance, if everybody else quit, we still didn't have a chance," Waltrip said. "That's what you don't want to have. So far, that's what I've had."

But there was a time when Waltrip at the top of the sport. He was Jeff Gordon years before Gordon dreamed of stock cars -- good looking, well-spoken and talented.

Like Gordon in recent years, Waltrip won often -- 84 races at 16 tracks from 1975-92 -- and was booed accordingly.

"Jeff Gordon and I, our careers have probably paralleled very well," said Waltrip, who has won more than $17-million during his career. "We came into this sport, became very dominant in a very short period of time and ticked off a lot of the old fans because I was the new guy on the block and nobody liked me. I got booed every week. I see that he's gone through that cycle."

Unlike Gordon, Waltrip was controversial and loved to talk so much that rival Cale Yarborough nicknamed him Jaws in the late 1970s.

"I've never backed up from an issue," Waltrip said. "There were issues that were unaddressed when I came in. There were things that were not, in my opinion, that needed to be brought to the top and worked on and changed. Nobody, when I came into the sport, was really that interested in fighting a battle. I always would. I like a good fight. I like a good debate. I love constructive criticism. ... That's how you get better. That's how you learn. That's how you grow."

But sometime during his career, Waltrip reprioritized his life.

Where racing once meant everything, his faith now comes first, closely followed by his wife and two children and then racing.

"You sit down at some point in time in your life and say, "What am I doing? Where am I going? What am I trying to accomplish? What is my legacy?' " Waltrip said. "All of us get caught up in what your legacy will be. What are people going to remember you for? ... What are they going to say about you? What are they going to tell your kids? What are they going to say about your dad? Those are things that you don't take the time to think about until you get older and wiser."

Next year, Waltrip will move into the broadcast booth as a commentator for Fox.

Though he never has worked a Winston Cup race from the press box, he doesn't doubt he will succeed.

After 29 years of driving in Winston Cup, he knows he'll miss it.

"I'm sure Richard (Petty) would like to have been 10 years younger," Waltrip said. "When I came along, I was 10 years younger than he was. Now there's drivers that are 10 years younger than I am. As the sport has evolved and grown and things have changed, yeah, you wish you knew then what you know now and were just starting out. That would be great. We don't have that luxury so you deal with it. You play with the cards that were dealt you.

"I've had a great career. I have no regrets. I've done everything I've ever imagined possible. I have nothing to be sad about."

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