Waltrip Wins One He Wanted : Fuel-Saving Tactic Results in His First Daytona 500 Title

<i> Times Staff Writer</i>

Darrell Waltrip, who has been coming to Daytona International Speedway for 17 years looking for a way to win the Daytona 500, finally did it Sunday in an unusual fashion.

He did it by staying away from the front, out of the lead position that all race drivers usually covet, prefering to tuck in behind other cars, even some who were several laps behind.

With 140,000 screaming fans waiting for a last lap shootout between pole-sitter Ken Schrader and Dale Earnhardt, the strategy worked. Waltrip, saving fuel by drafting behind Sterling Marlin, Rusty Wallace, Alan Kulwicki and Terry Labonte, came coasting home to take the checkered flag in the richest stock car race run.

“It was a lesson in fuel economy,” Waltrip said after screaming, “I won the Daytona 500, I won the Daytona 500, I won the Daytona 500!”

In his exuberance over winning the one race that had eluded him despite a career in which he has won three Winston Cup championships and nearly $9 million, Waltrip, 42, spiked his helmet in the winner’s circle and did his interpretation of the Icky Shuffle.


“I don’t know if I did the Icky Shuffle right or not, but if I didn’t it was the only thing I did wrong all week,” said Waltrip, from Franklin, Tenn.

Chevrolets owned by Rick Hendrick finished first, second and fourth as Waltrip was followed by Schrader, Earnhardt, also in Chevrolets, and Geoff Bodine.

In the end, Waltrip and his crew, headed by Jeff Hammond, played a chess-like game with the leaders.

Schrader, who led 114 of the 200 laps and appeared capable of getting to the front at any time, clearly dominated. But the pressure of running in the lead, breaking the draft for the others, took its toll. With only 10 laps, or 25 miles, remaining, Schrader and Earnhardt pitted at the same time for the splash of fuel needed to finish the 500 miles.

Earnhardt was in for 4 seconds, Schrader 6.2, but it was enough to allow Waltrip, who was cruising quietly along in fourth place, to move to second place behind Kulwicki.

Everyone, including Schrader and Earnhardt, were expecting Kulwicki and Waltrip to also pit. But Waltrip stayed out.

Kulwicki also tried to stretch his fuel to the end, but he couldn’t make it. On lap 196 he slowed on the backstretch and Waltrip moved into first place, right on the heels of Wallace, who was two laps behind.

“Those last four laps, I think I had four heart attacks,” Waltrip said. “I know Jeff (Hammond) did. One lap I told him I was out (of fuel), then I said no I’m not, yes I am, no I’m not.

“He said it was too late to change anything, to hang on. When I told him the fuel gauge was on the peg, he said ‘Shake the car and keep the fumes working.’

“On that last lap, Labonte was in front of me and Marlin was right behind. When I got to the third turn I knew I was home because I figured if I ran out then that Marlin would hit me hard enough to get across the line.”

Rick Wilson, who started 40th and finished eighth, summed up the feelings of just about everyone when he said: “Darrell just snookered the rest of us.”

Waltrip just grinned when told that.

“I don’t know if I believe in numbers or not, but after today I think I do. I’ve been coming here 17 years, my car number was 17 and our daughter (Jessica Leigh) was 17 months old on Feb. 17.”

Furthermore, Waltrip’s average finishing position in the Daytona 500 before Sunday was 17th.

Waltrip said that he, Hendrick and Hammond decided at lap 165 that it might be possible to finish without refueling. His last stop was on lap 147, which meant he needed to squeeze 53 laps out of 22 gallons. The average is about 50 laps.

“We figured if the race went on the green (without a caution flag) the rest of the way, the only chance I had was to conserve fuel, get behind anybody I could find and draft,” Waltrip said. “There was no way I could catch Ken (Schrader) or Dale (Earnhardt), but we knew from the figures we had from the Busch Clash last Sunday that we were getting great mileage, so I radioed in and asked if they thought I could do it.”

Hammond conferred with Stevie Waltrip, Darrell’s wife and the team’s lap checker, and crew member Sandy Jones and they calculated that he could do it, providing he never let the front end of his Chevy get out in fresh air.

“I knew Dale and Ken were going to have to stop because the way they were driving they were pouring fuel into their engine, but I was concerned a little about Kulwicki,” Waltrip said. “The difference was that when the front two guys pitted, it left Kulwicki out in front and that costs you fuel. It cost him just enough that he came up short.

“When you’re out in front, or if you’re trying to catch someone here, you have to hold it (throttle) wide open. If you’re drafting, when you go into the corners you can really let up and get a tow from the guy in front of you. If you can do it lap after lap, like we did, it can really make a difference.”

Waltrip, who won 73 Winston Cup races before winning the Daytona 500, said the thrill was second only to winning his first championship in 1981. He also won in 1982 and 1985.

“There’s been nothing in my career like coming off the ninth turn at Riverside, California, and seeing them holding up a sign saying that I was the champion. For one race, though, there’s nothing like winning the Daytona 500. I know, I’ve been trying long enough.

“It’s been like having a monkey on my back that I’ve had a hard time shaking off. Now people can quit asking me why I can win everything here except the 500.”

This was Waltrip’s 14th victory at Daytona, but all the others were in secondary races, such as Saturday’s victory in the Goody’s 300 for Busch Grand National cars.

Schrader, despite finishing second in a race that nearly everyone in the house thought he had in his sights, was pleased at his performance.

“I felt I could handle Earnhardt because he seemed to be having some sort of problem,” Schrader said. “But when I saw Darrell legging it, I knew we were in trouble.

“But this was a great week for me. I finished second, I won a lot of races, I won more money than I ever won in my life, so I’m leaving here real happy.”

Schrader, a former United States Auto Club sprint car and dirt track champion from Fenton, Mo., won the pole with a lap of 196.996 m.p.h., then won the Busch Clash and one of the Twin 125 qualifying races.

That, plus leading 114 laps, pushed his week’s earnings to $182,400, only $2,000 fewer than Waltrip got for winning the 500.

Despite Schrader’s apparent domination, there were 30 lead changes among 15 drivers, including venerable A.J. Foyt, who at age 54 in the twilight of his career, led four laps impressively early in the race.

When the right front shock broke on his Oldsmobile, Foyt motored behind the garage and called it a day.

“It would have taken seven or eight laps to fix it so there was no point in my going back out,” Foyt said. “I don’t see any point in racing if I can’t run to win.”

Foyt, who is not a regular NASCAR driver, does not run for Winston Cup points, unlike most of the others in the race who try to keep coming back no matter how far they fall behind.

Davey Allison was a case in point. Allison, who finished second behind his father, Bobby, in last year’s race, was tapped by Bodine in the backstretch on lap 20 and knocked sliding across the infield. When Allison’s Ford reached a sand bank at the edge of Lake Lloyd, the car did a slow rollover and landed upright. Allison restarted the engine and drove back to the track.

It took a number of pit stops to repair a flapping hood, windshield damage and fenders that rubbed against the tires, but Allison kept driving the battered car around and finished 25th, seven laps behind Waltrip.

The long drive did not temper his feelings toward Bodine.

“It’s one thing to cut a guy off when you’re on lap 198 or 199, but when you’re running sixth or seventh on lap 20 you’ve got use your head a little bit,” Allison said. “We were all in a straight line and he tapped me, then tapped me again. Then I backed off, and he turned me into the grass.”

As soon as the race was over, Bodine went to Allison’s garage and told him he was sorry, that he had just made a mistake.

“I cut over too quick, I admit that,” Bodine said. “But the front end jumped out and I hit him and turned him around.”

Allison’s response was curt.

“Apologies in the garage are too late.”

Bill Elliott’s hopes of picking up points with relief driver Jody Ridley toward defense of his Winston Cup championship ended up on the wall in the second turn.

Elliott started the car, in accordance with NASCAR rules, but turned it over to Ridley on the ninth lap when a fire in Neil Bonnett’s car brought out the first of seven caution flags.

Ridley, who lost nearly a lap in the switch, never caught up with the leaders but was still moving along in mid-pack when he veered toward the outside retaining wall on lap 72.

“I don’t really know what happened, except I know I hit that wall,” said Ridley, who not driven in a Winston Cup race since July 1986. “I felt like I got punched from the rear, but I don’t know. I just feel disappointed for Bill and the crew. They had such confidence in me and I let them down.”

Elliott was credited with 35th place, good for 58 points. Waltrip earned 180 for winning, but there are 28 more races remaining.


Darrell Waltrip has participated in 17 Daytona 500s. Here is how he has fared:

Year Finish Car 1973 12 Mercury 1974 7 Mercury 1975 26 Chevrolet 1976 32 Chevrolet 1977 7 Chevrolet 1978 28 Chevrolet 1979 2 Oldsmobile 1980 40 Oldsmobile 1981 36 Buick 1982 20 Buick 1983 36 Chevrolet 1984 3 Chevrolet 1985 3 Chevrolet 1986 3 Chevrolet 1987 8 Chevrolet 1988 11 Chevrolet 1989 1 Chevrolet