His 'own' man Waltrip controls more than steering wheel Countdown to Daytona


It used to be when Darrell Waltrip walked into his team's garage and crew chief Jeff Hammond told him there was a problem with the race car, Waltrip would give him a little smile and say, "Oh, really? That's tough, isn't it. I'm going to lunch."

It isn't like that anymore.

"Now, when Jeff has a problem, my response is, 'Oh, No!,' " said Waltrip, who now owns the race team.

The days when Waltrip could come to work, get in the car, drive and forget about everything else are history. DarWall may sound like something state road crews use to patch highway potholes, but to Darrell Waltrip it sounds beautiful.

It is the name of his business. He owns it: lock, stock, barrel and all the problems that go with it.

It's a 15-year dream come true, and Waltrip sees no reason for it not to work.

Last Sunday, his Western Auto Lumina sped around Daytona International Speedway at 193.703 mph. It was the 11th fastest car in qualifying for Sunday's Daytona 500. Today, he will drive in one of the Twin 125-mile qualifying races to lock in his 500 starting spot.

"I only wish I could have done it sooner," said the three-time Winston Cup champion. "I thought about it. I talked to Budweiser, when I drove for Junior [Johnson]. I talked to Tide, when I was with Rick [Hendrix]. But there wasn't a lot of interest. But Western Auto wanted to do this deal with me. It was a big commitment and they agreed to back me in it all the way."

Waltrip is so enthusiastic that his wife, Stevie, is hard-pressed to be otherwise. The Waltrips, Darrell, Stevie and 4-year-old Jessica Leigh, are one of the closest-knit families on the Winston Cup circuit. Stevie traveled to the races with Darrell long before other wives did, and now the family is present at nearly every race.

But Stevie does admit this new business venture takes some getting used to.

"It's a dream for Darrell and I'm glad he's gotten to do this," she says, as Jessica runs through the garage. "But for me, it is entirely different. I support and encourage him, but it is not what I would have chosen for a lifestyle.

"Darrell is a giving person and he bends backward to make us a family," she said. "If we're not with him, it's my choice. But if ppTC could have done the choosing, I'd like being at home and I'd like him to be at home every night.

"That doesn't mean I'm discontent," she said. "It only means I have to work harder. And now that he is the owner as well as the driver, he is even more busy, and I didn't know how that could be possible."

Waltrip is aware of Stevie's feelings, but he's doing it to try to provide more financial security for the family. Security has always been important to Waltrip, the first driver in the sport's history to top the $10 million mark in earnings.

His current sponsorship deal is for four years. As he looks down the road, he sees a future that will allow him to climb out of the race car and simply own the operation.

"We don't see any reason why this team can't be as successful as it was a year ago," Waltrip said, but probably didn't mean exactly that.

By the end of last season, Waltrip had won $520,420, but he had only two top 10 showings. It was the first time in 15 years in the majors that he didn't win a race.

And it was the first time he had ever been seriously injured. A broken left leg, sustained during practice for the Firecracker 400 last July, forced him to sit out six races and limited his ability in the eight races he started after coming back.

"I was always curious about how I would react to a serious injury," said Waltrip, 44. "It tests your commitment and your desire. You'd think hard at my age about getting back in a race car. I found myself asking those kinds of questions: Would I want to go back in? Would I be willing to do whatever was necessary to get back?"

The answers to both questions were yes. He has worked out three days a week in a physical fitness center to get ready for this season.

"I was apprehensive when we came to Daytona to test the first time in December," Waltrip said. "It was my first time back at Daytona since breaking my leg and it was an eerie feeling. Not only because of that, but I was sitting in my own car, and it was like being out on a limb by myself. But after a lap or two I never thought about it, not any of it."

Waltrip, who believed he would win the Daytona 500 for 17 years before he finally did in 1989, doesn't understand why anyone should doubt his team's ability.

"We've got everything we need," he said. "We have a good driver, a good owner, good engines and a good crew. We're not looking for anything."

Except, of course, a victory.

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