You want to talk contradictions'.' When the 30-race Grand National season ends on Nov. 18 at Riverside, Calif., Waltrip most likely will not have won the points championship ( Terry Labonte figures to do that), but the points don't always give the true measure of a season. Waltrip will have won more races this year than anybody else, as well as more prize money—he's at $616,653 with two events to go.
This championship-points situation stems from a scoring system that Waltrip insists dates back to the days when NASCAR—drivers, fans and officials alike—wore bib overalls and PAYDAY work shirts to the track. The points system is based on a fiendishly complicated formula, but it's like that for a reason. It was meant to encourage drivers to race the entire Grand National circuit and not just the big events, and it serves that purpose today—and you can be sure NASCAR isn't about to mess with anything that will keep spectators clicking the turnstiles...no matter what Darrell Waltrip might think. Indeed (lordy, this is blasphemy), if stock car racing were to be scored like Grand Prix racing. Waltrip would have the 1984 title wrapped up right now, based on his seven wins and a fistful of pretty fair country finishes; he's been in the top five 12 times in 28 races.
So, having won the championship in two of the last three years, finished second the other two and made the run he has this time around, Waltrip deserves to be recognized as the nation's leading stock car driver. That doesn't mean everybody loves him. He may be as irresistible as Mary Lou Retton to some fans, but to others he's Godzilla.
"Just listen to that," Waltrip says out of the side of his mouth. He's standing beside his car on the main straightaway at Charlotte, being introduced over the loudspeaker to a crowd of 131,500. From that wall of people comes a truly eerie howl. It rises and hangs in the air over a whole chunk of North Carolina: It's a combination of boos and cheers, and the net effect is to make the hairs stand up on your forearms. "It's sure a good thing I'm not running for office," he says.
But the fact is, the folks who boo Waltrip are much less hostile now than when he burst upon the Grand National scene. It wasn't so much that he started right off winning races, but that he set about beating all the heroes: Richard Petty, Cale Yarborough and Bobby Allison. What's more, Waltrip was speaking up when not spoken to. in a sport in which the veterans do the talking. He snapped about NASCAR rules in particular, but he'd also call down his crew, his sponsor and. sometimes, other drivers. Talent? "Why old so-and-so was just plain lucky," Waltrip once said of an archrival after a race. "He drove like an idiot; he must have had a horseshoe...."The fact that Waltrip was just as quick to praise others didn't matter much at first.
"You must remember that Darrell is an idol-toppler," says Herman Hickman, a former sportswriter for the Winston-Salem Journal who is now the public-relations director for the North Carolina Speedway in Rockingham. "He started knocking over the old legends, one by one, and stock car fans are fiercely loyal."
Yarborough, 44, three times national champ, says, "See, when Waltrip came into good-ol'-boy country, he wasn't really a good ol' boy yet. I mean, his being from around Nashville and like that. Now the plain fact is that everybody wants to be one—just like it's true that all Yankees secretly, deep inside their hearts, want to be Rebels. But Darrell's come to be more accepted nowadays. And I'll tell you, he's one heck of a race driver."
There was a time when Yarborough called Waltrip "Jaws," and not for his racing bite; but now, he says, "When we hear that he's spoke out again about something, we just sort of shrug and say, 'Oh, did Darrell say that?' and let it goon by."
So here is Waltrip in 1984, slightly more than halfway to being loved and a lot farther than that on the road to super-stardom. Those 64 wins since his rookie year, 1973, have put him into the top five in the alltime NASCAR standings, despite the fact that the other four—Petty, David Pearson, Allison and Yarborough—have a minimum of 11 more years of Grand National experience. His total purse winnings will likely hit $5 million at the end of this season, tightening his grip on the No. 3 spot on the money list. He's won those two championships (1981 and '82) and the Driver of the Year Award three times. All this for a variety of crew chiefs in a variety of cars. His original Mercury Cyclone now sits in a mechanic's backyard in Charlotte. "A tree fell on it one night," says Waltrip. "and killed it."
A few hours after the race at Charlotte, Waltrip contemplates a margarita in a Mexican restaurant. With him are his dad and mom, Margaret, and his wife. Stevie, plus a friend. This particular margarita is one of those monster models: You could plunge into it and splash around, swimming from salt to shining salt. The concoction half-consumed, Waltrip tells about sitting in his car earlier in the day—just moments before the race—and being approached by a fan. "The guy says, 'Can I have your autograph, old pal?' " Waltrip says. "And I said of course he could. And he says, 'O.K. Uh, have you got a piece of paper?' I mean, I'm supposed to be carrying around pieces of paper at a time like that? I tell him sorry, but I haven't. So the guy pulls off his cap and asks if I'll sign that. And I say sure. Then he asks me, 'Have you got a pen?' A pen? In my driving suit? And I tell him, 'Gee whiz, I'm awfully sorry, but I just don't happen to have a pen on me.' And then the guy gets sore and says to me, 'Well, that's O.K. I don't really like you anyway.' " Waltrip sighs.