Driver's license to thrill Veteran: At 51, Darrell Waltrip sold his NASCAR team, began piloting a car for a rival and resurrected his career.

July 31, 1998|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

Darrell Waltrip has been getting letters of apology. They have come from fans, from competitors, even from writers who cover the Winston Cup circuit. All say much the same thing. All say they regret having said, thought or written that Old DW was washed up.

Behind this abundance of regret is Waltrip's resurrection. At 51, the former three-time Winston Cup champion ascended from a fixture at the back of the pack to a contender. Over the past four months, Waltrip has become the eighth most competitive driver in Winston Cup racing and second only to Jeff Gordon among the Chevrolet drivers.

Twice, he finished in the top 5 and could have won.

He's done it all while driving for rival Dale Earnhardt, filling the seat left temporarily vacant by Earnhardt's injured rookie driver, Steve Park.

On Sunday in the Pennsylvania 500, in Waltrip's most recent race for Earnhardt, he had his ninth top-15 finish in 13 races. Tomorrow, in the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, as Park returns to the Earnhardt Chevrolet, Waltrip will see if he can keep this streak alive while driving for the No. 17 team, the one he used to own. And he gets a little defensive when it's suggested he's going back to his old car.

"It's someone else's car," Waltrip said. "I don't know if it's old or not. It may be. But it doesn't matter what the 17 car does Saturday. I'm better. That's what matters. If the car doesn't perform, it's not my fault. The pressure is off me now.

"I got my driver's license back."

Yesterday, Waltrip was 42nd (173.608 mph) and failed to qualify. He'll try again today.

He has maintained for years that he could still drive. But almost all aging athletes believethey can still compete. And as the years passed and his last win, Sept. 6, 1992, at Darlington, receded into the past, fewer and fewer people who heard him believed him.

He was driving for his own team, which hadn't had a top-10 finish in points since 1994. Thingsgot so bad that five races into this season, Waltrip sold his team. Only then did life begin to change.

"I really thought the reason I was doing so poorly was just because of all the headaches that come with owning a team," Waltrip said.

"There's too much competition now," he said. "Too many two-car teams, too many personnel problems, too many money problems, too many rule changes, too much politics and too much travel. One guy can't do it all. I didn't have any partners. I didn't have anyone to help me."

He said he did not mean for that to sound like, "poor, poor, pitiful me."

Waltrip's wife Stevie revealedjust how hard it was.

"Every part of our being was hurting," she said. "It was like being in a desert and not seeing anything to give you hope. It was like we were hungry, thirsty and dying. We've been through a lot of things together, but this was the hardest period of our lives."

It is strange how life works. One of the hardest decisions Darrell Waltrip ever had to make was to sell his race team, not knowing where his next ride would come from -- or if it would come at all.

Earnhardt, who often does nice things for others without fanfare, brushes aside the gratitude.

"It was a situation where we sort of got frazzled when Steve got hurt, and Darrell is the kind of driver who could really give the guys a lot of confidence," Earnhardt said. "With his experience and expertise, [I knew] he'd do well and we'd do well together."

Park broke his right leg, shoulder blade and left collarbone on March 6, but an expected six-month recovery turned out to be a week short of five months.

On March 22, after a sponsor failed to keep a commitment, Waltrip was forced to sell out.

A few days later, Earnhardt called and asked Waltrip to drive Park's Chevrolet.

"I think it was fitting that Dale called," Waltrip said with a teasing smile. "I told him, 'It was about time he did something nice for me.' Actually, it didn't really surprise me that much. I don't think I was any more surprised that he asked than he was that I said yes. The thing is we've been racing each other for nearly 30 years and we're a lot a like. If I was in trouble, he'd be the one person I'd call. He was in trouble: He had a team and a sponsor, and the sponsor doesn't want to know who's injured [just] who's driving."

Waltrip set out with two goals: He wanted Earnhardt's team to feel it was better with him in the driver's seat, and he wanted to prove he could still race.

Missions accomplished.

NOTES: Ernie Irvan waited out a rain delay of nearly four hours and then broke his own Brickyard qualifying record with a lap of 179.394 mph. Then he waited out 49 more drivers who were trying to knock him off the pole. They failed, although four broke Irvan's earliermark of 177.394. Dale Jarrett took the outside on the front row (178.596). Among the drivers failing to lock in a starting spot by qualifying in the top 25 were former Brickyard winners Ricky Rudd, the defending champion who was 27th, and Dale Earnhardt, who was 28th.

Qualifying

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