NASCAR

I’m So Excited About Being Excited!

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Darrell Waltrip

Darrell Waltrip — winner of 84 career NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races and a three-time champion — serves as lead analyst for NASCAR on FOX. He was selected for induction into the prestigious NASCAR Hall of Fame as part of the Class of 2012. Want more from DW? Become a fan on Facebook or follow him on Twitter.

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Like all race fans, I have been anxiously awaiting for this week to get here. It’s like your Christmas, New Year and birthday all wrapped into one. It’s the start of another NASCAR Sprint Cup season. Weather permitting, everyone will be in Daytona by the middle of the week.

For our NASCAR on FOX team, we’ll have a photo shoot on Thursday and a season kickoff dinner Thursday night. We’ll be back on the air on Friday. We’ll cover the Sprint Unlimited on Saturday night and then qualifying for the Daytona 500 on Sunday afternoon. Does it get any better than that? Well, actually, next week it does with the Duels under the lights for the first-time ever Thursday evening, the Camping World Truck race Friday night, the Nationwide race Saturday and then the one we’re all waiting for, the Daytona 500 on FOX Sunday, Feb. 23.

I think the most overused word in a racer’s vocabulary is “excited.” They all say they are excited about the next race. They are excited about the new rules package, the new Chase format, their new crew chief or their new sponsor and on and on.

This year, I get the sense from talking to all of them, it goes beyond excited and it’s a feeling of anticipation. Anticipation leads to excitement because you have these high expectations. You truly believe in the core of your being that this is your year. This is the year you are going to put it all together. I don’t care if you're Jimmie Johnson, David Regan or Morgan Shepherd. You just know you are going to get the job done more than ever before.

To be fair, the start of the season also brings with it a lot of anxiety. Sure, your offseason testing might have gone really well. Sure, the owner and the crew chief might have beefed up the pit crew or the engineering folks or the motor room gang. Sure, you might have great sponsors supporting you. It might look great on paper. It might look like one of those “can’t fail” scenarios. See, though, that’s the thing to remember, because looking good on paper is one thing, but actually getting out there and getting it done is another. If you don’t believe me, I have three words for you: "The Dream Team."

I lived this back in the late 1980s when Rick Hendrick hired me to drive the Tide car. We wanted for nothing. We had this incredible team of all-stars and everyone dubbed us "The Dream Team." On paper, we looked like we should win every pole, lead every lap and win every race. Sadly, "The Dream Team" turned into a nightmare. Trust me, it’s heading to 30 years later and the hair on the back of my neck goes up whenever I hear the words "The Dream Team."

The same anxiety comes into play for these drivers today. While it might look like they have it all in the palm of their hand going into this new season, there is always the question of actually getting it done out there on the track.

You can’t discount that this is not the same NASCAR as in the past. This is the new NASCAR. We aren’t going to decide who starts the race from the pole like we have in the past. We aren’t going to determine who the champion is going to be like in the past. It’s all different. It’s all new. It’s a clean slate. It’s exciting. This is a golden opportunity for some of these drivers and teams that might not have had a chance to win a pole, make the Chase or even win the championship under the old rules.

For everyone else, Christmas, as the song goes, “is the most wonderful time of the year.” For a NASCAR Sprint Cup driver, it’s the most wonderful time of the year right now. They are headed to Daytona and they are undefeated. They have the best cars with the coolest paint schemes. They have new firesuits and helmets. The press kits are new and improved. Their die-cast and souvenirs are brand new for 2014. All that lends itself to excitement, energy and anticipation.

We live and work in an emotional sport. We are the only sport that lets the fans get up close and personal with the drivers in the garage area. We are the only sport that gets you instant access to a driver after a overwhelming win, a disappointing loss or even after leaving the infield care center after a bad crash. My favorite saying when it comes to our sport is “you have to play with emotion, but you can’t let emotion play with you.”

The first indication we’ll get of how strong some of the teams will be comes Saturday night under the lights in the Sprint Unlimited. It’s a no-points money race that kicks off the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup season.

Then there are all the storylines this year to follow. How will Tony Stewart be after returning from his horrible season-ending crash in 2013? How will his new employee and teammate, Kevin Harvick, do in the No. 4 car? Is Jimmie Johnson going to rewrite history yet again and become only the third driver in the history of NASCAR to win his seventh championship? Who is going to be the standout in our strong rookie class this year? How will a certain rookie handle the pressure of being a rookie while driving the vaunted No. 3?

This is just the tip of the iceberg of things we have to look forward to this year. There’s a lot of anticipation. There is a lot of excitement. Despite all my years in this sport, I still can’t wait to drive through the tunnel into the infield of Daytona and see those high banks of Daytona International Speedway. I get goose bumps every year I do it. It simply never fails.

For me, it brings back so many memories. Some of those memories are horrific, but more are really, really special, like what happened 25 years ago on Feb. 19.

For the drivers today that now carry the torch in our sport, when they pull through the tunnel, they get their first glimpse of hope. Hope that this is their year. Hope that this is the time they can pull it off. They know now is the time. Now is the time to get the job done. For them it is a very exciting time. For ol’ DW, well, I am just excited and hopeful for them. I am so excited to be excited.  

Tagged: Austin Dillon, Matt Kenseth, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick, Kasey Kahne, Tony Stewart, Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski

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