Hometown: Franklin, Tenn.
Top Fives: 276
Top 10s: 390
Darrell Waltrip is known by all race fans and casual viewers alike, as the jovial anchor for FOX Sports’ NASCAR coverage. Since 2001, we’ve all become familiar with his trademark phrase “Boogity, Boogity, Boogity… Let’s Go Racin’, Boys!!!”
He has also developed his own language, ‘splainin’ to us the difference between loose and tight, the practice of working together while trying to win for yourself (coopetition) and cars named “Bertha.” He has also been known to break out into song. What many fans who have only started following the sport don’t know is just how successful Waltrip was as a driver. He is often introduced as “three-time champion Darrell Waltrip,” but with today’s Chase format, it’s hard to appreciate just how much he has accomplished.
Waltrip won his first race in 1975 at Nashville, Tenn. and he won again later that year at the Richmond Fairgrounds. This was back during the “big car” era. With all the aerodynamics of a sofa on tap and no power steering, the control truly was in the driver’s hands. During this time when he started racing, he would tally 27 wins. Some of those wins came as an owner AND a driver. All of them came against four of the top-seven drivers in the all-time wins column:
Don’t look now, but right there on that list are 21 Winston Cup championships and 548 wins. The only drivers with more wins than Waltrip are Petty and Pearson.
As Anchorman Ron Burgundy would say, that’s, “…kind of a…’ Big Deal’…”
In 1979 Waltrip crossed the finish line in the Daytona 500 on Petty’s bumper. Later that year at Darlington, a late-race duel with the King would see Waltrip coming out on top and began to signal the changing of the guard in NASCAR.
About this same time he would develop a reputation as brash, outspoken, and some would say arrogant. Yarborough gave him the nickname “Jaws” because of his knack of giving his opinion on anything and everything to anyone who would listen. He made a comment once to a reporter prior to an autograph session at a K-Mart that if people just had an opportunity to meet him face to face and talk, they’d think differently of him.
The next day the headline in the paper read “Waltrip Challenges Fans To Meet Him Behind K-Mart Parking Lot,” as if he were challenging them to a bare-knuckle brawl.
The early 1980s brought radically different downsized racecars. Waltrip was now driving for Junior Johnson, and immediately took to the new cars that wore the dash plaques, “Custom Built for Darrell Waltrip by Junior Johnson & Associates.” In 1981 Waltrip won 12 races in car No. 11, including four in a row towards the end of the season, a record shared with only a handful of drivers in the modern era.
Waltrip would win his first championship driving the Mountain Dew Buick Regal that year, besting another legend of the sport, and a driver with whom he did not get along particularly well, Allison. He would repeat the feat in 1982, winning another 12 races and taking the title by 72 points over his bitter rival Allison. During the 30-race long season he would finish out of the top 10 on only five occasions.
In 1983, following a particularly hard impact with the inside wall at Daytona in his yellow No. 11 Pepsi Monte Carlo, he would go on to rack up six wins and finish second it the standings to none other than, you guessed it… Allison. His third championship would follow in 1985 while driving the Budweiser Chevrolet for Junior Johnson, despite winning only three races to Bill Elliott‘s 11.
With the addition of Neil Bonnett as his teammate, Waltrip began to grow weary of what was happening at Ingle Hollow. In 1987 he would move on to drive the Tide ride for Rick Hendrick. The plan at Hendrick’s All-Star Racing team was one designed to create a “super-team.” Hendrick was an up and coming owner, whose roster included Geoff Bodine and the late Tim Richmond. A new sponsor in Tide, one of the first major non-traditional sponsors in NASCAR, along with the pairing of Waltrip and another legendary name in Waddell Wilson, and Hendrick had the makings of a winner.
Though he would only win one race in 1987 and twice in 1988, Waltrip would start the 1989 season off with an improbable win in the one race that had eluded him, the Daytona 500. A fuel mileage gamble paid off for the blinding orange Chevrolet, as Waltrip weaved the car side to side on the last lap, trying to get every last ounce of fuel to slosh around to the pick-up in the fuel cell.
Never one to be short for words, Waltrip grabbed Mike Joy in victory lane who was interviewing him for CBS and demanded to know “this IS the Daytona 500 isn’t it?!!” Five more wins would follow in 1989, and Waltrip was poised to make a run at his fourth championship in 1990.
Unfortunately the success that Waltrip had so enjoyed at Daytona the year earlier, was shattered in July 1990, along with his leg. An accident during practice for the Pepsi 400 would send Dave Marcis plowing into Waltrip’s driver-side door along the frontstretch, breaking Waltrip’s leg and his championship hopes. The six races he would miss would drop him to 20th in points, his worst placing since 1973.
In 1991, Waltrip would make another change in his career, going the Alan Kulwicki route as owner and driver. Waltrip would prove no slouch as an owner, winning for the first time in just his seventh outing at North Wilkesboro. The resulting interviews with him as he put his “owner’s cap” on (which was his Western Auto Cap, pulled down low over his eyes) quickly became mandatory for any DW interview.
Later that year Waltrip would suffer one of the most violent crashes ever at Daytona, as he flipped down the backstretch a dozen times, flinging mud and sod 50 feet in the air. Waltrip would emerge beaten and bruised, but well enough to appear on Late Night With David Letterman shortly thereafter to talk about the ordeal.
In 1992 Waltrip would win three times, including back-to-back wins at Bristol and the Southern 500 at Darlington. He dedicated the Bristol win to his daughter on her birthday, and the rain-shortened Southern 500 was the last win of his storied career. His last top-10 finish in the points would be 1994. From 1975 to 1994, a span of 20 seasons, Waltrip finished in the top 10 in points an unbelievable 18 times. From 1977 to 1987, he finished in the top five in points every year.
Whether it was Petty and Pearson or Earnhardt and Elliott, Waltrip beat them in big cars and little ones, on bias-ply tires or radials.
In 1998, Waltrip abandoned the team he started in 1991. The team would be purchased by Tim Beverly, and Waltrip was out of a ride. He would substitute for Dale Earnhardt Incorporated’s injured rookie driver Steve Park. A strong run at Michigan had him singing over the radio to the team as he would pass by the pits each lap. The next week at Pocono, some late-race pit strategy had him in position to win for the first time in six years.
A series of late-race restarts would quell any chance at victory for Waltrip, but he was not without a memorable and emotional soundbite in his post-race interview saying, “I was in a pretty deep hole, and they were throwin’ dirt on me… but I’m crawlin’ back out. This feels good.” Later that season he would return to drive for Beverly who had purchased his team in another florescent orange car, the No. 35 Tabasco Pontiac.
Following 1998, Waltrip would suspend all ties with his former team. He would leave to go drive for Travis Carter as teammate to Mr. Excitement, Jimmy Spencer. Beverly would eventually sell the team to MB2 Motorsports, which would become Ginn Racing, and has now merged with DEI. Beverly himself merged into an 8×10 cell, as he was convicted for fraud and money laundering in 2004.
Waltrip would drive the No. 66 Ford for Travis Carter through 2000, his best finish being an 11th-place run at his last Brickyard 400. He would miss a number of races due to being part of a new team without owner points in 1999, and for generally being slow. He was driving a second car that wasn’t part of a marquee organization, and he could never seem to get on track to build any momentum or semblance of his past successes.
His final race at Atlanta had every team member lined up on pit road to salute him in his final Winston Cup event, a fitting tribute to the driver who still ranks third in all-time victories, in a racing series that is only rivaled by Formula 1 in prestige.
In 2001 we watched and listened as Darrell called his younger brother Michael Waltrip home to victory for the first time in the Daytona 500, just about the same time the Lord was calling home his longtime rival Earnhardt. The next weekend at Rockingham, Darrell led a touching and emotional prayer at the track, inviting everyone to hold hands with the person next to them. A fierce competitor and clever with a word, Waltrip also revealed a level of compassion and eloquence matched by few.
Today Darrell Waltrip is as much a part of the sport as he was at Darlington in 1979. While the driver that Yarborough deemed “Jaws” is never at a loss for words in front of a camera, his previous work behind the wheel is recognized by few these days. Don’t let the myriad of jokes and clowning around fool you; Waltrip is one of the greatest competitors in the history of the sport. His accomplishments as a driver are somewhat over-shadowed by his presence in the broadcast booth, but all anyone has to do is check the stats: Darrell Waltrip is a certified legend in auto racing.
About the author
Vito is one of the longest-tenured writers at Frontstretch, joining the staff in 2007. With his column Voice of Vito (monthly, Fridays) he’s a contributor to several other outlets, including Athlon Sports and Popular Speed in addition to making radio appearances. He forever has a soft-spot in his heart for old Mopars and presumably oil-soaked cardboard in his garage.
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