SI Flashback: About Time, Fella
In his 17th crack at the Daytona 500, Darrell Waltrip finally squeezed out a win
by Sam Moses
Issue date: February 27, 1989
THERE MIGHT NEVER HAVE BEEN A stock car driver who wanted to win the Daytona 500 more than Darrell Waltrip, nor one who has been dealt more cruel blows by the Big D. For 16 years, during which time he won 73 NASCAR races, the Daytona International Speedway kept finding new ways to confound Waltrip. After last year's crusher, when he suffered a blown engine with just 20 laps remaining and Bobby Allison drove into Victory Lane, Waltrip asked his wife, Stevie, ''What can I tell the people who keep asking me why I haven't ever won the 500?''
''It's because it means too much to you,'' Stevie replied.
So Waltrip came to Daytona this year armed with his wife's wisdom. He was determined not to care, and apparently that was the secret. Driving with a clear head and a deft right foot rather than an anxious heart, he slid into the lead three laps from the checkered flag, while heavier-footed hot dogs lost their chance for the crown because they had to pit for a final splash of fuel. Waltrip's share of the $1.7 million purse was $184,400, but the real payoff might be that never again will he have to hear the question he had come to despise.
It's a good thing Waltrip arrived at Daytona with a laid-back attitude, because Kenny Schrader and his Monte Carlo roared through the undercard events for Sunday's 500 undefeated. First Schrader grabbed the pole at 196.997 mph, then he won the $230,000 Busch Clash (limited to Winston Cup pole winners from last season) as well as one of the two 125-mile qualifying races; no other car could match the maroon Chevy's speed and handling. The only one to come close was Dale Earnhardt's jet black Monte Carlo. Last Tuesday, Earnhardt was in a scary wreck in practice for a Grand National race. That car was a write-off, but he was so happy with his 500 car that he told well-wishers on Sunday, ''See you in the victory circle.'' He should have added, ''Maybe next year.'' Now Earnhardt, a three-time Winston Cup point champion but a nonwinner in the 500, must shoulder alone the monkey he had shared with Waltrip.
The combination of aerodynamic refinements (''We build an airplane for Daytona, not a race car,'' said driver Neil Bonnett) and reduced power from NASCAR-mandated carburetor restrictors made drafting crucial at this year's 500. Two- and three-abreast racing was replaced by single-file streams of cars -- conga lines of twitchy, 3,500-pound dancers. Drivers were leery of pulling out to pass, for fear they would be blown back to the end of the line. Much of the wall-tagging in this race -- the yellow flag came out seven times, for 30 of the 200 laps -- was attributable to drivers attempting to squeeze back in line.
After 50 laps, it was clear that the winner would come from the pack of four leading cars at that moment -- all Monte Carlos, driven by Schrader, Earnhardt, Geoff Bodine and Waltrip. However, Earnhardt's hopes were being dimmed by an engine flutter. When he was on someone's bumper, his car was fine, but on its own it went lame. He relentlessly rode the tail of other cars, mostly Schrader's.
Waltrip pitted for gas with 53 laps left. Most of the other cars could run no more than 45 or 46 laps per tankful, but Waltrip knew his car was delivering better mileage. So with 35 laps left, Waltrip, lingering in seventh place, radioed his crew chief, Jeff Hammond, and suggested they go for the finish without an additional pit stop. Hammond didn't think Waltrip could do it. ''It's the only way we can win,'' argued Waltrip. ''I can make it. I promise I can make it.''
That meant driving the final 80 miles with a feather foot. Waltrip could not afford to move out in the gas-robbing open but would have to stay tucked in the wake of other cars. Meanwhile, up front, Schrader was burning up the track . . . and gas.
With 10 laps to go, Schrader -- and his shadow, Earnhardt -- ducked into the pits together for a final shot of fuel. Earnhardt came out first, boosting his hopes, but Schrader quickly passed him. They were now third and fourth, with Alan Kulwicki and Waltrip running one-two. Kulwicki had driven a smart race to get his Ford in contention, but with four laps to go he cut a tire and had to pit, leaving Waltrip in front by eight seconds.
Then Waltrip's fuel-pressure gauge dropped to zero. Terrified, he cried to Hammond, ''I'm out! I'm out!'' Hammond told him to swerve the car around to slosh the remaining gas into the pickup. ''Shake it, baby, shake it! Shake it, baby, shake it!'' Hammond screamed.
''I thought the radio was playing rock 'n' roll,'' Waltrip said later.
Though the gauge indicated dry, the engine never sputtered as Waltrip cruised home the winner. ''I won the Daytona 500!'' he told his crew in a cracking voice on his cool-off lap. ''I can't believe I won it! Don't lie to me, this is Daytona, ain't it? I'm not dreamin', am I?''
When NASCAR officials inspected the tank after the race, they found its capacity to be a legal 22 gallons. One official was asked how much fuel Waltrip had to spare. ''Well, for five dollars I'd drink what's left,'' he replied.
Issue date: February 27, 1989