He’s been there from the very beginning. At least the start of Fox Sport’s first broadcast under a contract with NASCAR. That first race was a memorable one; not only did Darrell Waltrip call the final laps as his younger brother Michael won his first Daytona 500. It was also tragic as Dale Earnhardt Sr. crashed on the final lap and died. His words still echo to this day: “I just hope Dale’s okay.”
It turns out that the announcement Thursday that he will retire after Fox ends its season at Sonoma in June may have come two years too late.
“My dream had been that I was going to retire in 2017 because I love 17,” Waltrip told The Tennessean Thursday. “Well ’17 came and I said, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa, bad decision, no, no, no. I’m not quite ready for that.’”
The 17 was Waltrip’s number for many years. In all he won 84 career Cup Series races, tying Bobby Allison for fourth all-time, and was the series champion three times. He was inducted into the third class of the NASCAR Hall of Fame in January 2012.
“A big wake-up call for me was when our first grandchild was born 14 months ago and I would come and go and it was just like when I’d watched my girls grow up,” he told the newspaper. “They grew up at the racetrack and they were grown and married before I hardly knew it.”
NASCAR has certainly changed since Waltrip left the racecar in 2000. Of course, it had changed in 2000 when Waltrip hung up his helmet. He’d started racing at the Cup level in 1972, fulltime in 1976. Overall, he raced 809 times.
During his time racing Waltrip became known as a brash loudmouth and earned the nickname “Jaws”. By the time he finished his last race at Atlanta at the turn of the century, many new fans weren’t aware of his glory days; they only knew him as a former champion turned backmarker; his best finish in his final season was 22 at Pocono, and he didn’t even qualify for 6 races. His best days were behind him and it was time for him to move on.
Fast forward to today.
Much like when he stopped racing, NASCAR has plenty of new fans; fans who know him only as the guy who starts every race with a southern accented, “boogity, boogity, boogity.” And much like that day in Atlanta in 2000, most of us will agree that it’s time for him to move on. That controversy was raised this week on social media when Jenna Fryer from the AP opined that “Fox Sports needs a change.”
That may be true, but we must never forget that Waltrip has been an integral part of NASCAR since it started its ‘Modern Era’ and you can bet he’s ‘seen some things’.
And we should never forget that.
Now freed from the constraints of NASCAR TV contracts, Waltrip may not be afraid to speak his mind. The “Jaws” may not be as sharp as they once were, but I suspect there can still be quite a bite.
But if he decides (rightly so) to do nothing more than spend time with his grandkids, then we should all respect that and wish him well. However, there’s plenty of us who hope we can still see the Hall of Famer make occasional appearances at races. After all, “boogity, boogity, boogity” may not be a favorite of every fan, but Darrell Waltrip is a NASCAR treasure and we all hope he’s around for many years to come.