Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Running on Empty Waltrip's Final Ride at Daytona Speedway Probably Won't Be Any Cause for Celebration

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Running on Empty Waltrip's Final Ride at Daytona Speedway Probably Won't Be Any Cause for Celebration

Article excerpt

DAYTONA BEACH -- One of the hardest weekends of Darrell Waltrip's racing career was the first time he came to the Daytona International Speedway.

His final appearance as a driver at the famed 2.5-mile raceway at the Pepsi 400 this Saturday won't be any easier. In many ways, it may be tougher now than ever.

Waltrip was 19 when he unloaded a 1958 Ford for his first race on any racetrack bigger than the half-mile circuit in Nashville. He had to work on his car around the clock for a week to get it through inspection for a Sportsman Series race that served as a warmup act to the Daytona 500.

When he unloads his 2000 Ford for the beginning of practice and qualifying tomorrow, his biggest problem won't be the NASCAR inspectors. It will be on the racetrack.

The Pepsi 400 is the unofficial start of the second half of the NASCAR Winston Cup Series season. It marks the beginning of the end for Waltrip, who after 29 years in Winston Cup, will climb out of his race car and join the racing broadcast crew for Fox Sports next year.

His so-called "Victory Tour" has not provided the man who's tied for third on the all-time victories list the kind of bang he hoped. There have been no victories, no close calls and little more than pity for a driver whose biggest struggle is to simply make the starting lineup each week.

In the first 16 races of his final campaign, Waltrip has had to use a provisional exemption five times just to make the field. Once he ran out of his allotment of exemptions on April 16, he missed three of the next six races because he wasn't fast enough to be included in the 43-car field. And after failing to qualify a fourth time, he bought his way into the Coca-Cola 600 at the Lowe's Motor Speedway near Charlotte, N.C., by starting a car that originally was qualified by Carl Long.

Perhaps Daytona, a track that always will be special in Waltrip's career, will be the elixir he needs to jump-start a home-stretch drive to retirement.

"Of all the places we go, I have more good memories, bad memories, fun memories, sad memories of that place," Waltrip said. "The only place I ever got hurt was there. It took me 17 years to win the Daytona 500 there. There are so many things. That was the first time I had ever been to a big track. I had never been anywhere like that."

Daytona and its sister track at Talladega, Ala., are the two fastest speedways on the stock car series. Both require the use of a restrictor plate under the carburetor to reduce the amount of gas and air into the engine, limiting speeds by more than 30 mph for safety reasons.

Waltrip has struggled all year with the restrictor-plate races. He had to utilize provisional exemptions at the season-opening Daytona 500 and again at the DieHard 500 at Talladega. The 54-year-old driver has just earned an extra provisional -- each driver is given a new provisional every eight races -- for the future, and that exemption may he used at his Daytona swan song. …

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