Nearing finish, Waltrip no longer `wears 'em down'


May 14, 2000|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

Darrell Waltrip sat with the reporters gathered at the infield media center at Dover Downs International Speedway last week and listened to Jeff Gordon. Waltrip wasn't taking notes or recording the information. His contract with Fox-TV doesn't start until next season.

No, Waltrip was simply observing and remembering how "20 years ago, it was me up there."

Waltrip and Gordon are three-time Winston Cup champions. But at 53, Waltrip is in his last season on the tour, while Gordon, 28, is still talking about getting back to the top of the series."When I first walked in the gate, I was 28 years old," Waltrip said. "I was 10 years younger than the top guys and my plan was to wear 'em down and wear 'em out and that's what I did. Then Jeff Gordon, five or six years ago, he came in thinking, `I'm just gonna wear 'em down.' Now, younger guys are coming along, and they're thinking, `I'm just gonna wear 'em down.'"

There is nothing wrong with that, Waltrip said. It's simply life's cycle. The Winston Cup series has a number of aging drivers - Dale Earnhardt, Rusty Wallace, Mark Martin, Dale Jarrett are all in their 40s - though only Dave Marcis, 59, is older than Waltrip.

And, perhaps, no one is wiser.

Wiser? What's wise about Waltrip, you might ask. What's wise about a 53-year-old riding around at the back of the field week-in, week-out? Last week, he didn't even make the race at Richmond International Raceway, historically one of the tracks he enjoys most.

What's so wise about all of that?

The wisdom is in being able to admit his Big K-Mart team is not competitive.

Imagine how much pressure it eases for him to be able to say: "My job is to train these guys. We've got a group I like. I think they'll be good - some day. But it's not going to happen for me."

He won't say that he wishes he had not undertaken this final "Victory Tour," but he does admit that the Fox-TV contract waiting for him at the end of this season "is a bigger carrot" than anything his current team has to offer this season."I'm not having any fun," Waltrip said. "I'm not emotionally disturbed, either. But I will say, damn, I'm glad this is the last year."

Always a man of opinion, here are a few Waltrip offered:On whether Gordon will get back to his previous best: "Not like he was. He's not going to have eight- and 10-win seasons. It's not because of Jeff, or Ray [former crew chief Evernham] leaving, or part of his pit crew leaving. It's the change in all those parts. It not only changes people, it changes confidence, communication, the way you approach things and chemistry."On the talent of Dale Earnhardt Jr.: "Apples don't roll far from the tree."

Expansion reaction

As NASCAR continues its plans to blanket the country with Winston Cup racing by announcing new races in Chicago and Kansas City for next season, reaction among its drivers is mixed."There are fans out there who are absolutely starved for races," said Kyle Petty, his eye on the big picture. "Because of those fans, a lot of companies from areas without races right now are getting involved. The fact that races are coming closer to them means a lot."

On the other hand, Michael Waltrip points out, drivers and crews have families at home and adding two races to the schedule means two more weekends that they won't be home."I think it would be fine if they cut back on some of the testing dates," Michael said. "We get seven tests now. I'd like to see them eliminate three of those. Give us four tests and just have us race. Cutting back testing would be my goal."

Then there are those like Jeremy Mayfield, who draws in a deep breath and says, "There is a big difference in 36 weekends and 38 weekends, but we'll get through it however we have to get through it."

Mayfield also suggests NASCAR could look at making the race weekend two days, the way it does at Saturday night races such as last weekend's in Richmond, instead of the usual three.

And if NASCAR responds by saying it needs that extra day for qualifying and practice, that could be curtailed one of two ways:

Eliminate qualifying by lining up the cars for the start of the race based on the Winston Cup points standings; or have qualifying, but then allow no changes in the setups for the race. That would mean the practice before qualifying would be the only practice and the cars would be impounded until race time.

Having one setup for qualifying and racing would save money as well as time.

Nuts and boltsThe Valvoline Online Racing Auction on eBay, benefiting Big Brothers/Big Sisters of America, raised $40,000 in its first week. The auction of racing memorabilia from all motorsports series is on-going through May 23.If all goes as planned, Nazareth Speedway will have an historic first to promote when the CART series returns for its make-up date, Saturday, May 27. On the pole at Nazareth will be Juan Montoya and in the field will be his teammate, Jimmy Vasser.

If both qualify for the Indianapolis 500, as expected, the could become the first CART drivers to win both a CART race and Indy (the next day) on the same weekend. Montoya and Vasser will be the first CART drivers to compete at Indy since a split in open-wheel racing five years ago.

Yates recognition

The Bill France Award, which is presented each year at Pocono Raceway to a person, corporation or organization that has made an outstanding contribution to Winston Cup racing, will be presented to car owner and renowned engine builder Robert Yates on June 17.

Among the drivers Yates has fielded cars for are the late Davey Allison, retired Ernie Irvan, Kenny Irwin, Ricky Rudd and current Winston Cup champion Dale Jarrett.

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