Ol' DW seeks one more 'perfect game' By Marty Smith STATESVILLE, N.C. (Jan. 16, 2000) Darrell Waltrip acknowledges he could easily change his name to Billy Chapel, the once dominant, now over-the-hill baseball pitcher that Kevin...
Ol' DW seeks one more 'perfect game' By Marty Smith
STATESVILLE, N.C. (Jan. 16, 2000) Darrell Waltrip acknowledges he could easily change his name to Billy Chapel, the once dominant, now over-the-hill baseball pitcher that Kevin Costner brought to life recently in the movie "For Love of the Game." In the movie, Chapel is a 19-year veteran of the Detroit Tigers, a former league Most Valuable Player and is heralded as one of the most dominant pitchers ever to play the game. However, after nearly two decades with the same team, he is offered an ultimatum - retire or be traded. So, rather than be shipped around from team to team, he opts to pour his entire heart and soul into one last moment in the spotlight.
This season, Waltrip is no different. It's time for his last hurrah.
"I'm sure there are CEO's of major corporations that have walked in one morning and all of a sudden they've had a private board meeting and they've decided they need a new CEO," Waltrip said. "And, we're gonna give you a golden pair of shoes and send you on your way. And that poor fellow probably feels about like I do.
"This is not a normal lifestyle. It's a seven-day a week, all of your life commitment. It's something that's second nature to you. You get outta bed, you put on your pants and you to the racetrack. You do that everyday of the week, and I've done that ever since I was 12 years old. You can't get rid of that."
Rarely does an individual so profoundly influence his sport the way Waltrip has influenced NASCAR Winston Cup Series racing. For more than a quarter-century, he has worn several hats as a chief ambassador for stock car racing.
He's been a fierce competitor, notching an astounding 84 victories and 276 top-5 finishes in NASCAR Winston Cup Series competition. He's been champion three times, landing back-to-back titles in 1981 and '82, then returning to the throne in 1985. However, while those numbers are obscene, Waltrip's true effect lies elsewhere, namely in his devotion to promoting NASCAR to the far reaches of society.
"Darrell is a good friend of mine, he's an awful tough competitor and has done a lot in NASCAR Winston Cup racing," said Dale Earnhardt, who joins Waltrip among the elite drivers of the series' 51 years. "He was a great champion and when NASCAR started to grow, he was a colorful focal point that caught the fans' attention."
Thus, Waltrip's performance in recent years has been disappointing at best, and he'll be the first to admit it.
"The last couple of years have just been disastrous," Waltrip said. "When you don't make races, I can't tell you what that does to me. I used to wake up in a cold sweat thinking about missing a race, not because I wasn't fast enough, but because something happened to me. To not make a race is embarrassing, it's discouraging. It's the worst feeling in the world to drive that car back in the car and put in that trailer and go home and watch that race on TV.
"That's what makes this so hard. People expect me to make the race. There's people that if they don't make a race, it's no surprise. People expect me to make races. People expect me to be competitive. That's been the hardest thing, trying to live up to those expectations, because I've always been able to. I've always been better than people thought I could be, and when I'm not, and don't live up to those expectations, that's very disappointing."
Waltrip hasn't won a race since 1992. In fact, over the past seven NASCAR Winston Cup Series seasons, he's only finished in the top-5 14 times. Even so, he doesn't feel he's any less of a driver, and this year he out to prove it with Robert Yates engines under his hood and a load of trademark Waltrip gumption in his heart.
"This is a matter of self pride for me that I can prove to myself, my friends, my fans, my critics, that I am still a very capable racecar driver at 52 years old," he said. "I think I am just as capable a driver now as I was 20 years ago. I'm not as reckless. I'm not as wild. I don't do the courageous things I may have used to do, but those things don't pay off these days anyway. I'm more calculating. I'm a risk/reward driver, and I have been for the past 10 years.
"You take a rookie that's never driven anywhere, he thinks he's gonna have a great year. You take a brand new team that doesn't have a wrench in the toolbox, they think they're gonna have a great year. The happiest time at the racetrack is just before practice starts at Daytona. You got your brand new uniform on, you got your brand new crew, you got your brand new car, you've got your brand new truck. You've got brand new everything and you're gonna win every race. Then, you go out on the racetrack and guys are coming in saying "Ruh-Roh,' maybe I was a little too optimistic."
The No. 66 Big Kmart team is highly optimistic heading into NASCAR 2000. Unlike last year, Waltrip and teammate Jimmy Spencer will be in identical cars, with identical chassis', motors and philosophies, which will by all counts help Waltrip reach his ultimate goal in his final season - qualifying for every race in the first round of Bud Pole Qualifying.
"Some of the best times I had this past year when I just qualified into the field the first day or at least know I was gonna be in the field," Waltrip said. "I could go back to the motor home that evening and eat supper and play with the girls and kinda relax a little bit. The most tense times this past year was on Saturday when I knew I had to go second round and probably didn't have a very good chance of making the show and knowing that I was probably gonna have to go home.
"Those were times that were very difficult. So, what would be fun for me this year is if I could make it in the show first round every week. I think it would help me race a lot better on Sunday. It gives you that extra track time Saturday morning to get your car right for the race. When you go second round, you're working on qualifying all day Saturday. Then, by the time you get to Happy Hour, you've only got a few minutes with the car in race setup and the car's never right for the race. So, I just need to know I'll be in the show on Saturday morning, that would make my life so much easier."
That's little to ask for a man that transformed his sport like few could have, then graciously dealt with the agony of a declining career when he knew he still had what it took to succeed.
This past Friday, Waltrip was asked to reflect on the past decade, and the disappointment was immediately evident on a face nearly always graced with a smile.
"You can't help but be upset about it," he said. "I don't guess I doubt myself so much, but what wears me down is that other people doubt me. That's what hurts. I don't doubt that when I've got my car right, and I've got what I need, I can do the job.
"If I thought I couldn't do the job than I honestly would not continue. There would be no reason for me to. I don't do it because I'm made to do it, I'm doing it because I want to do it. So if, in my heart, I didn't think I still had the ability and the desire and the know-how, I wouldn't do it. I don't have to."