Darrell Waltrip’s career in NASCAR was a long and glorious one. His one race return to the driver’s seat last month wasn’t.
After a 26-year run as a full-time member of the Winston Cup circuit D.W. moved on to make his living watching and talking about racing for the FOX Network. But Waltrip un-retired for a day when he competed in the Craftsman Truck Series race at Martinsville, Va., April 13. He drove a Dodge, and current FOX analyst Jeff Hammond served as his crew chief – just as he did during the late stages of Waltrip’s Winston Cup career. But mechanical problems cut short his race. After a spin on the fourth lap, Waltrip (who won 11 times at Martinsville in a car) was back in 35th place. He worked his way back into the top 15 before a fluid leak ended his run.
“Jeff and I have to thank FOX for giving us this opportunity,” Waltrip said before the race. “We were supposed to be in Nashville broadcasting a Busch race, but they were kind enough to let us go racing. This is going to be fun.”
The truck was originally scheduled to be driven by Stacy Compton, but Compton was forced to bow out due to a scheduling conflict. The ride was sponsored by Duck Head Footwear, and sported Waltrip’s old number – 17.
“This is a great opportunity to have some fun,” Hammond said as he and D.W. prepared for the race. “It’ll definitely rekindle some old memories we had together and make some new ones.”
The truck captured four top-10 finishes and one pole last season.
Bursting onto the scene in 1972, Waltrip competed in five races in cars he maintained and owned himself. By 1976 D.W. had a ride for the full season, thanks to owner Bill Gardner. By 1977 he had established himself as one of racing’s brightest stars.
Waltrip managed four wins and two top five finishes on superspeedways that season, and picked up almost $300,000 for his efforts, big money in those days. With matinee idol good looks and a brash demeanor, Waltrip was something of an enigma among the good old boys of the stock car world. While fans were embracing the likes of Bobby Allison and The Alabama Gang, and continuing their love affair with the King, Richard Petty, Waltrip liked to race hard and talk plain. That often didn’t go over well with the thousands of fans who liked their heroes a little more on the humble side.
But by 1981 and 1982, Waltrip had become the standard bearer of the Winston Cup flag, winning an astounding 24 races over that span and grabbing more than $1,500,000 in prize money.
From 1981 to 1986, he drove for Junior Johnson, winning three Winston Cup championships. From 1987 to 1990 he worked for Rick Hendrick, and while there were no titles, there were plenty of wins, including six in 1990.
As Waltrip was swiftly putting up Hall of Fame numbers, he was also becoming a crowd favorite. His brashness gave way to quick wit, and the same folks who used to cringe at the thought of Waltrip taking the checkered flag finally warmed to the pilot. In 1989 and 1990, he was named NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver, an honor that seemed impossible during his days of bluster.
In 1991 Waltrip became an owner/driver again, and in 1992 he won three races while pulling double duty. With three Winston Cup championships, 84 career victories, more than $17,000,000 in earnings and a future spot in the International Motorsports Hall of Fame, Waltrip’s place in stock car history is secure.