Waltrip has had few occasions to dance this year. His final season was intended to be a celebration of his driving accomplishments, but instead Waltrip has found himself taking heat in the press and around the garage for his mere presence on the track. Waltrip had failed to qualify for three of the season's first 19 races, and made the field for a fourth by buying a ride in the Coca Cola 600 from upstart driver Carl Long. His best finish heading into Indy was 22nd, giving Waltrip and his supporters cause to be defensive. "It's ridiculous that anybody would criticize a man that has meant so much to his sport," says Michael Waltrip. "No one criticized Jack Nicklaus for being 13 over par and missing the cut in the U.S. Open after getting an exemption to get into it. [The fans and media] were just reveling in the fact that they might have been watching Jack walk up the 18th fairway for the last time. He wasn't competitive. That wasn't what it was about."
But Darrell, who owns 84 wins and three Winston Cup titles, has continued to believe that he could be competitive given the right ride. "This has been the toughest struggle," says his wife, Stevie. "To still have the ability and for people not to believe in him, that's probably the worst thing to happen to Darrell."
If that was the worst, then the events of last week had to be among the best. Even though Ricky Rudd knocked him off the pole, Waltrip seemed deeply moved by the site of his accomplishment and the raucous reception it received. "The greatest drivers in the world have walked these hallowed grounds," he said. "That does something to me. It puts a lump in my throat."
Shortly after the green flag fell on the 400 last Saturday, though, Waltrip made like Jackson and began moon walking. He slid from fourth to 23rd in only eight laps following the first round of pit stops. But just when it looked as if the skeptics were going to have a field day—and plenty of people at the Brickyard were offering over/unders on when DW would get lapped—Waltrip made a respectable charge, finishing 11th and giving the Victory Tour a measure of validation. "There are people been sayin', 'Ol' DW needs to quit, he shouldn't race anymore,' " said a grinning Waltrip. "Now there's a shadow of a doubt."
There's a Will, And a Way
Responding to the deaths of Adam Petty and Kenny Irwin in crashes at the New Hampshire International Speedway in the past three months, NASCAR took action last week to address what is believed to have been the cause of both fatal wrecks: a stuck throttle. Every Winston Cup car must now be equipped with a stopper to keep the throttle from opening too far, to the point where it might stick in the open position, as well as an engine-kill switch on the steering wheel within reach of the driver's thumb.
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