Waltrip races time in seeking past glory Winless on circuit since 1992, he starts next-to-last at Dover

June 02, 1996|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

DOVER, Del. -- As surely as the changing tide erodes the shore, so does age wear away the skills of a champion.

It isn't something that happens in an instant. For three-time Winston Cup champion Darrell Waltrip, it has come with the repetition of the ride as he has circled countless speedways, lap after never-ending lap.

How long has it been since Waltrip was in Victory Lane? Four years? It doesn't seem possible, but it has been almost that long since that sunny September day in Darlington, S.C., when he won the 1992 Southern 500.

"But every time I leave home for the next race, I think this is going to be the weekend I win," Waltrip says.

Today, at Dover Downs International Speedway, he has a long way to go to find victory in the Miller 500. His Chevrolet starts 41st, next to last, in the 42-car field.

He is 49 now. His 84 victories tie Bobby Allison for the third most in Winston Cup history, but his average finish this season is 22nd. His best came last week, 13th, in the Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte, N.C.

Waltrip once was so competitive that it seemed he wouldn't be truly happy until he had broken his tie with Allison, but now it is winning for winning's sake that drives him.

"I'm going through something any other 45- to 50-year-old male can identify with," he says. "It's what happens to your abilities. A salesman, an athlete . . . everyone comes to a time when his abilities diminish.

"You go from being able to function and compete on your ability to relying on your experience. It was my experience that got me that 13th place at Charlotte, because 10 years ago I would have driven right up in the middle of the big accident we had there. I'd have been wide-open."

Richard Petty used to talk about every driver having a bucket with so many wins in it. "When they're gone, the bucket's empty and there just ain't any more," he would say.

Yesterday, Waltrip didn't say anything about a bucket, but he is pretty sure there is such a thing as a "Luck Bank."

"I think there comes a point when you go to the bank and you're just plain out of luck," he says. "Right now, I can't win running the way I'm running. If I was running better, it would make cutting back on my racing a lot easier."

It is ironic that he has reached this point. When he was winning his Winston Cup titles in 1981, 1982 and 1985, Waltrip said consistently that he didn't want to be driving a race car for long. Certainly not past the age of 40.

Known as an insightful and humorous conversationalist, he has been a part-time color commentator for TNN, for which he is doing six races this season, but he likes it only in terms of combining it with his own racing.

"I think Darrell and I are both in a similar spot, where we both still enjoy what we do," said seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt, 45. "It makes us happy. But I understand what he's going through.

"I'm still on the aggressive level of 'I'm going to win this race. I'm going to win today and tomorrow.' But I think your thought process changes when you start to ease off: you give up a little easier, you don't try as hard or you play it a little safer."

Waltrip admits a number of broken bones have tempered his aggressiveness and perhaps slowed him by making him more thoughtful.

"The older you get, the harder it gets," he says. "And you don't want to have another wreck. So as you get older, the race car has to be a certain way. Ten years ago, you'd get in it and drive it no matter what. You'd say, 'Yeah, it's OK,' and go on. Now you're much more particular. You hate the car. You hate the track."

Add to that improved competition. Also, since Waltrip has become the owner of his team, the turnover has been tremendous.

When crew chief Jeff Hammond returned in late March after a six-year absence, he found only two of the 30 men he had worked with there still on board.

"Dale Earnhardt is great because he has Richard Childress and Jeff Gordon is great because he has Ray Evernham," says Hammond. "Richard and Ray know what their drivers need. Darrell was at his best when he was surrounded by continuity and consistency. Since I left here, they've had 45 or 50 different people come through. It's hard to develop a winning relationship like that."

Hammond was with Waltrip for two of his three championships and for 43 of his 84 victories. He says he owes Waltrip a debt of gratitude and that is why he has come back to this team.

Waltrip is in need of a helping hand. He said that when Hammond asked him why he was doing certain things a certain way, "I had to answer I didn't know. I call it the 'blind obvious.' "

Hammond, 39, didn't laugh. He has a clear understanding of what Waltrip is going through.

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