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'Jaws' puts clamps on spot in NASCAR Hall of Fame

NASCAR HALL OF FAME

- rgreenjr@charlotteobserver.com
Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2012

Perhaps had Darrell Waltrip not come along when he did, spewing tire smoke and attitude when he came out of Owensboro, Ky., big-time stock-car racing would have been forced to create him.

The sport had been colored by characters for years, most of them southern-born and biscuit-fed. They believed in racing hard and letting the bent fenders and checkered flags speak for themselves.

Then came Waltrip with a head full of bushy hair and a personality as subtle as a thunderstorm.

“He came along at a time when the sport needed him,” racing promoter Humpy Wheeler said. “Boxing had Muhammad Ali and football had had Joe Namath. They were these outspoken athletes who hadn’t really existed prior to the 1960s.

“Racing had a lot of characters, but to be outspoken you have to be smart. Darrell was smart. ... Half the people didn’t like him, but the sport needed that.”

Forty years after his NASCAR debut at the Winston 500 in Talladega, Ala., Waltrip will be inducted into NASCAR Hall of Fame on Friday night, capping a racing career that didn’t end when he quit racing more than a decade ago. Waltrip went on to become a respected commentator on Fox Sports’ NASCAR coverage, using his place in the broadcast booth to push for safety changes in the aftermath of Dale Earnhardt’s death in 2001.

He’s joined in the Hall’s third class by Richie Evans, Dale Inman, Glen Wood and Cale Yarborough.

The arc of Waltrip’s career is wide, encompassing his extraordinary success on the track as well as his evolution as a personality. Brash enough to be nicknamed “Jaws” years ago, Waltrip challenged the sport’s biggest stars, proved he belonged in their company and grew into a figure as big as his trophy case.

Waltrip won 84 races, tying for fourth with Bobby Allison on NASCAR’s all-time victory list. He won three championships with owner Junior Johnson – in 1981, 1982 and 1985 – and his back-to-back 12-win seasons in 1981 and 1982 are among the best in the sport’s modern era.

“I never doubted my ability,” Waltrip said. “I knew I could outdrive everyone but you have to put all the pieces together. Very seldom do all the pieces fall in place. I was fortunate to have it all come together with Junior.”

Waltrip’s success was built, in part, on a driving style that may have relied as much on moxie as horsepower. He could run out front – his 59 career poles are fifth-most – but often preferred a more patient approach. Understanding that races aren’t won at the start but at the end, Waltrip would often linger in the middle of the pack through the first portion of a race, poke his car among the leaders with 100 miles or so remaining and be where he needed to be when the final 20 laps unfolded.

“He was a strategist,” said Jeff Hammond, Waltrip’s crew chief in two of his championship seasons. “If he had to wait to the halfway point when they would give money out, that’s when you would see him come to the front. All of a sudden, ‘That’s my money. I want to get me some.’

“He had a way of having a game plan when they dropped the green flag.”

Racing roots

Waltrip learned his racing in Kentucky, attending short-track events with his grandmother, who was a fan of driver G.C. Spencer. Waltrip remembers watching Spencer’s Chevy Coupe – nicknamed the Flying Saucer – make smooth laps around the track and he remembered how much his grandmother disliked Spencer’s rival, Gene Coons.

Before he was a teenager, Waltrip was in the pits looking at Spencer’s car when he said, “Granny, I think I can do this.”

He could and he always imagined himself driving like Spencer, letting the car do the work.

Waltrip won two races in 1975 and his career gained momentum from there. He won six times in 1977, six more times in 1978 and seven times in 1979. Along the way, Cale Yarborough – who will join Waltrip in being inducted into the Hall of Fame on Friday night – called Waltrip “Jaws” after being knocked out of a race by him.

Waltrip understood he had a reputation. If he didn’t, it became clear when he heard Richard Petty say Waltrip might win plenty of races and break a number of records but he’d never be the most popular driver in the sport.

“In the beginning, I didn’t really care,” Waltrip said. “I was fighting for my piece of turf. I was just so focused on driving and winning and trying to create a name for myself. I didn’t care what anybody thought of me.

“Back in the day, there were good guys and bad guys. If I had to be a bad guy, that was OK. I just wanted to be one of the guys.”

A new outlook

By the mid-80s, when Waltrip, along with Dale Earnhardt, were the dominant drivers in NASCAR’s top circuit, he began to think about his legacy. That meant thinking about his popularity and how to change the cascade of boos he’d hear from fans when he was introduced before races.

“Once you peel away the layers and see inside the man, the front Darrell put on, that’s exactly what it was,” Hammond said. “He had feelings. He didn’t want people to not like him. It was easy to say ‘I don’t care what you think,’ but it hurt him. He wanted people to like him and respect him.”

Waltrip’s image had begun to change, but it was altered for good at The Winston All-Star race at Charlotte in 1989. Leading the big money event coming out of turn four on the next to last lap, Waltrip was taken out by Rusty Wallace, turning “Jaws” into a victim.

It came just months after Waltrip had won first Daytona 500 in his 17th attempt, celebrating in Waltrip style by asking a television announcer if he was dreaming, then breaking into a silly dance in Victory Lane.

“It’s the top of the mountain. You climb a lot of mountains but that’s the one you want to be on top of at the end,” Waltrip said of his Daytona 500 victory. “The rivalry I had with Dale (Earnhardt), we both came close to winning that race and couldn’t pull it off. It was the crown jewel, the top of the heap.”

On to TV, then hall of fame

Twelve years later at the Daytona 500, Waltrip would be in the television booth for his first race as a broadcaster. He has called it his “baptism by fire,” watching his brother, Michael, win his first race at the same moment that Earnhardt was being killed in a last-lap accident.

Waltrip used his place in the sport and the booth to push NASCAR to enact more stringent safety measures, advocating the use of the HANS device in cars, which was eventually adopted.

For all of that, Waltrip will go into the Hall of Fame.

“This is the pinnacle,” Waltrip said. “In the past, there was always another mountain to climb.

“Not anymore.”

Green: 704-358-5118

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