Editor’s Note: Darrell Waltrip won his only Daytona 500, 35 years ago this month. This story was originally published in the February, 2014 issue of SPEED SPORT Magazine commemorating the 25th anniversary of Waltrip’s long-awaited Daytona victory.
On the morning of Feb. 19, 1989, Darrell Waltrip had already secured his place in NASCAR history.
At that point, the 42-year-old racer’s résumé included 73 victories and three championships (1981, ’82 and ’85) in stock car racing’s premier division. The outspoken native of Owensboro, Ky., had also helped take the sport from the backroom to the boardroom, as his race car was sponsored by Tide — one of America’s most prominent consumer brands.
However, as Waltrip prepared to climb into Rick Hendrick’s No. 17 Chevrolet that Sunday for the 31st Daytona 500, there was a gaping hole in his stellar résumé — Waltrip had never won the sport’s biggest race.
And by the way things had gone during the preliminary activities it didn’t look as if 1989 would be his year either.
Twenty-five years (now 35) later, here’s how Waltrip remembers the 1989 Daytona 500 — a race that turned out to be a defining moment in his Hall of Fame career.
“We had qualified on Goodyear tires, but Goodyear pulled their tires and we had to switch over to Hoosier tires. There was a difference in the circumference of the tires. The Hoosier tire was smaller and it made the car lower,” explained Waltrip, who started the race second alongside teammate Ken Schrader.
“So we had to raise the car up, reset and change things to get the car to drive like I wanted it to on the Hoosier tires. We had worked on the car, even Sunday morning, making changes to it, trying to get the car comfortable for me.
“When they dropped the green flag we were hoping we had a car that could win the race. But once we got into the race, we realized we didn’t. The thing was still evil, hard to drive, just couldn’t run it wide open like I needed to,” Waltrip continued. “But that was one of those things that turned out to be a blessing in disguise, because we kept coming into the pits.
“Every time there was a caution — and there were a lot of them — we would come in and work on the car, change the wedge, change the height — just screwing on the car all day long.
“We never were much of a factor. We could hang in the top 10 all right, but we couldn’t challenge Kenny (Schrader) and Dale (Earnhardt). They had the two best cars. It got late in the day and there was a caution flag with 50 some laps to go, I think 55 to go. When they gave one to go, we came down pit road and topped the thing off real good with fuel and made a couple more adjustments,” Waltrip added.
“We went back out and restarted deep in the field, but had a car that was pretty good at that point. We had made enough changes through the day that the car was feeling the best it had been.
“It wasn’t long into that run until Stevie (Waltrip, his wife) told Jeff (Hammond, crew chief) that if we could save a little bit of fuel we could make it to the end. Jeff came on the radio and told me, ‘We think if we save a little fuel here and there and you can draft a little bit and get a couple of laps, we might be able make it to the end without stopping.’
“Of course, I’m saying, ‘There ain’t no way. You can’t do that, you all are crazy.’ Nobody had gone that far all day and we were not getting that type of fuel mileage,” Waltrip recalled. “But because we had finally gotten the car to drive better and because I could now hang in there and draft with people, it really worked out well. I was able to suck along behind people, not run it wide open, but keep up, which I hadn’t been able to do all day.
“What was ironic was that the only other guy that had a shot at doing what we were going to do was Alan Kulwicki. Everybody started peeling off to get fuel, then the first thing you know it’s just me and Kulwicki that haven’t pitted yet,” Waltrip continued.
“My car was good, but I don’t think I could have beaten Alan if he hadn’t had a problem. But we go into the first turn and he has a right-front tire go down. I didn’t know that’s what had a happened to him. I thought he had run out of gas. I think there were a couple of laps to go and I’m thinking that if he can’t make it, we can’t make it.
“So I spent the next two laps screaming and hollering and crying on the radio that we’re not going to make it, we’re not going to make it. The fuel gauge in the car would literally fall to zero. The car would sputter and pop and spit. The last couple laps of that race I don’t know how that thing kept running.
“But I was in a good spot. I was in amongst some cars that I could draft with, so even when the car would try to cut off or started missing, I had enough draft from the cars around me that I could keep going.
“I got the white flag and just knew I was going to run out. I had come so close to winning that thing a number of times. I just knew it was going to run out going down the back and I was going to end up 32nd,” Waltrip continued. “But it didn’t. It just kept going and we made it to the finish. We won the thing in dramatic fashion.”
Waltrip, who now works as part of the FOX broadcast team, won 84 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races before hanging up his helmet following the 2000 season. And all these years later, it’s still ironic that the biggest victory of his storied career came at Daytona Int’l Speedway.
“I don’t like Daytona; I’ve never liked it,” said Waltrip, who won 14 races at the 2.5-mile superspeedway. “I’ve wrecked there more than any place I’ve ever raced. I’ve been hurt there. A wreck almost ended my career there in ’90. Then I had an incredible crash in ’91 going down the back straightaway.
“But it was one of those places that because of that, it challenged me. I really had to suck it up to go there and race well. And it got harder and harder as time went by and the more wrecks I had there.
“It was a difficult track for me to be comfortable at and do my best. So I always felt a great deal of accomplishment whenever I won anything there because it was not one of the tracks where I was really comfortable.”