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They Make for Strange Racing Fellows

TIMES STAFF WRITER

“True it is that politics makes strange bedfellows.”

--Charles Dudley Warner

Not to mention stock car racing.

A decade ago, Dale Earnhardt and Darrell Waltrip were bitter rivals, Earnhardt the young “Ironhead” fighting to win his second Winston Cup championship, Waltrip the aging “Jaws” struggling in vain to win a fourth crown.

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Their rivalry was not a friendly one.

After one race in Richmond, Va., where they were penalized for banging into each other on pit row during a caution period--Earnhardt later was fined as well--Waltrip said, “He tried to pinch me against [Bobby] Hillin’s car so I couldn’t get into the pits ahead of him. I saw what he was going to do so I came alongside him. After that, what he did was his own doing.”

Earnhardt snapped, “I don’t give a damn about what that SOB said happened.”

The hard feelings lingered for years.

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Fast-forward to 1998: Waltrip is driving a Chevrolet Monte Carlo for Dale Earnhardt Inc. in the Winston Cup series. Even Earnhardt is amazed at the turn of events.

“As many times as Darrell and I have run into each other and raced hard with each other and did a lot of things, it’s sort of ironic that here we are, working together as a team,” the seven-time champion said.

It’s said that two wrongs don’t make a right, but it took two bad breaks to create one good one in the Earnhardt-Waltrip get-together.

First, Steve Park, the rookie from Islip, N.Y., who was driving the No. 1 car, owned by Earnhardt’s wife, Teresa, crashed heavily during a practice session at Atlanta Motor Speedway in March. Park suffered a broken right leg, broken left collarbone and broken right shoulder blade, putting him out of action for at least three months.

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At almost the same time, Waltrip lost his sponsor, and after racing with his own money at Darlington, N.C., he found a buyer for his Chevy team and sold it to T.C. “Tim” Beverley, a 41-year-old businessman from Tyler, Texas.

“This is a win-win situation for me,” Waltrip said. “It couldn’t have worked out any better, as far as I’m concerned. I wanted to get out of the headaches of owning a race team. Tim is a businessman. He thinks he can run the team better than I can, and I agree with him.

“Dale needed a race car driver, and I said I wanted to prove that I can still drive a race car. That’s the perfect deal for me. Like I said, it’s win-win.”

Waltrip will be in the yellow Pennzoil No. 1 for the California 500 this weekend at Fontana. It is the same car Park drove in the three races before his injury, and crew chief Philippe Lopez and the crew came with the car.

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Earnhardt will be in the familiar black No. 3, in which he won the Daytona 500 in February.

“If you’ve ever thought about if there was a God and if he answers prayers, or whatever, think through this scenario with me,” Waltrip said. “Here’s Darrell over here, he’s in a bind. There’s Dale over there, he’s in a bind, but we’re not even thinking about each other at this point [right after the Atlanta race March 8].

“I have a Bible study group that meets every Thursday morning at my house. About 75 guys come every week. I told them what was happening and a couple of the guys said I should park my car and go drive for Earnhardt. I said, ‘Yeah, that’ll never happen, not even in my wildest dreams.’ Those men prayed for me about the situation.

“The next day I get home and I get a call from my brother Michael. He’s down in the Bahamas with Earnhardt. ‘Let me ask you something,’ Michael said, ‘If Earnhardt was to call and ask you if you would drive his car, would you do it?’

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“I said, ‘Do what? First of all, he ain’t going to call me to drive his car and even if he did, I couldn’t because I’m tied up with my team.’

“The next thing I know I find a guy who wants my team. I’ve got Beverley on one line and I’ve got Earnhardt on the other line. I’m saying, ‘Tim, what are we going to do?’ He says, ‘I’d like to buy the team and shut it down for three or four months.’

“I’ve got Earnhardt on the other line saying he’d like me to come drive for him for three or four months.

“These two guys had never met, never even talked, but I’m sitting there and I’m hearing the answers to my prayers.”

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The No. 17 car, which has been campaigned by Waltrip since he started his own team in 1991, is being sidelined until Waltrip completes his role as a substitute driver.

“We need some time to reorganize our race team, build several new cars and secure sponsorship,” said Beverley, who owns and operates Tyler Jet Aircraft. “Even though the No. 17 car won’t be at the racetrack, we’ll be working real hard behind the scenes, doing research and development.”

Waltrip, who may--or may not--be the driver when No. 17 returns to the races, said he was sure Beverley had the right approach.

“T.J. didn’t get where he is today by making bad business decisions,” he said. “He’s not worried about the next race, he’s standing back and looking at the big picture. He understands what it is going to take to get this race team back to victory lane and taking some time to regroup is an excellent decision.”

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Earnhardt also revealed that the union goes beyond just using Waltrip as a driver.

“Steve Park will be back in the car, we hope for the Brickyard 400 [Aug. 1 at Indianapolis], but the important thing is that Darrell is doing a job for us and Tim [Beverley] is coming on board with us as an associate sponsor. We’re going to be working together helping him put his team together. It’s a team effort all the way around.”

When Earnhardt tabbed Waltrip as his driver, word around the Winston Cup garages was that he got Waltrip because he was assured a spot in each race with a champion’s exemption.

Waltrip bristled at that talk.

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“I’ve only had to take the champion’s provisional once,” he said. “Other times, I’ve got in on my normal car owner points. I’m getting tired of hearing that the champion’s provisional was being tarnished or something.

“It’s a neat thing for me to have, and it’s a neat thing for me to tell Dale that I think it can get us in the race every week, but I’m not planning on using it anymore. I’m going to be right up front.”

As if to put an exclamation point on his statement, Waltrip qualified 14th at Martinsville, Va., April 17, 17 positions better than Earnhardt.

“I’d love nothing better than for it to come down to the end of the day and have to race [Dale] and see how it turned out,” Waltrip said. “It would be pretty exciting for both of us, I think.”

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Earnhardt, mellower at 47--his birthday is today--than he was 10 years ago, has a few words of warning for his 51-year-old teammate:

“If Darrell should win a race in one of Teresa’s cars, he better hope I’m not on his bumper. It’s not my race car. What happens if I’m leading and he’s in second? You might could see some of that ’86 stuff come out in us.”


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