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'This is Daytona isn't it...This is Daytona isn't it?'
Twenty five years ago on February 19, 1989, I got up on Sunday morning and did what I always had done prior to the running of the Daytona 500. Drivers are creatures of habit when it comes to race day and I was no different. One of my stops that morning naturally was to visit with my crew chief Jeff Hammond and the team. We discussed some last-minute thoughts on the car. We had our pre-race team meeting.
We were on the outside pole. Our Hendrick Motorsports teammate Kenny Schrader was on the pole. The reality was we had a good race car, just not a great race car. Kenny hands down was the car to beat. However, that didn’t keep me from doing what I had done 16 years in a row before. When I walked to my car after driver introductions, I knew this was going to be my day. I told myself and convinced myself that my time was now.
There really wasn’t anything to make me believe it more or less than the other 16 attempts, except for one thing. It was that numerology thing that kept circling back around. You’ve probably heard me tell this a thousand times but you know what, here it is one thousand and one.
It was my 17th attempt at winning the Daytona 500. I was in car No. 17. Hammond had picked pit No. 17. The purse was $1.7 million, I believe. There’s 17 letters in my name and our oldest daughter’s name. When Hammond and I sat down and looked at all that I told him one of two things was going to happen “We’re either going to win, Jeff, or we’re going to finish 17th.”
When we started the race, quite honestly we weren’t as good as I had hoped. That, however, is the beauty of a long race and a team sport. We worked on that car all day. Each time we stopped, Jeff and the boys made it a little better for me. Ironically, after that last stop and packing it full of fuel, the car was the best it had been all day long.
It was then that my wife Stevie, who always handled my fuel calculations for every race, pointed out to Jeff that there was a chance, if we wanted to risk it of possibly going the distance while everyone else would have to stop at least one more time for fuel. It was a gutsy call on both their parts and so it was up to me to try and make it happen. As I have always said, the very best thing they ever did was make the suggestion really early in the run, giving me more time to conserve fuel.
I drafted anything and everything. Seriously, if it was a low-flying seagull, I drafted his feathered behind. Just like a storybook ending, everyone started peeling off to pit for fuel. It was working out just like Stevie and Jeff said it was except for one thing. That one thing was Alan Kulwicki. He was also rolling the dice and trying to go the distance.
I actually thought it had us beat until he went up the hill in Turn 2. I thought he had run out of gas and it wasn’t until after the race that I found out he actually had a tire go down. And so it was down to No. 17. Those last couple laps inside that Chevrolet felt like an eternity. The motor sputtered time and time again. I’m screaming on the radio I’m out of gas. Hammond’s screaming back to just keep going. Everyone’s crying because it’s just going to be that close. By the time I was coming out of Turn 3 and going into Turn 4, the realization began to set in that I could coast it from there if had to. Thankfully I didn’t and Sunday February 19, 1989, became a Red Letter Day in the Waltrip Family.
Winning is hard. Winning is never easy. Winning this race, our sports biggest race was the hardest thing I had ever done. I raced 29 years on the NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit and won the Daytona 500 once. It took Dale Earnhardt 20 years to get his first Daytona 500 win. There are folks in the NASCAR Hall of Fame who never did win the Daytona 500.
That’s why someone like Richard Petty is so iconic to me. I’ve spilled more blood, broken more bones and spent more time in the hospital from wrecks at Daytona trying to win that race one time, than all my other wrecks combined, because of what it means to a stock car drivers career to win the Daytona 500.
Richard Petty has won this race seven times. SEVEN TIMES. I’ve said it before and I will keep saying it. That’s the stuff of immortals.
Would my Hall of Fame career be as fulfilled if I hadn’t won the Daytona 500? Not even close. I always tell folks that if you can only win one race your entire career in our sport, then make it the Daytona 500. Seriously, the rest of your life, no matter if you never win another race, you are always introduced as “the winner of the Daytona 500 …” That’s the significance, prestige and long-lasting honor that comes from taking the checkered flag at Daytona.
People always ask “What was the feeling like when you crossed the finish line?” You probably are expecting me to say jubilation. Actually Dale Earnhardt and I talked about this very thing after he won his in 1998. The jubilation comes later. At that very moment in time the feeling is relief. No, seriously it is. The simple joy of relief you have finally done it. The pressure is gone. All the questions, all the whispers and especially all the self-doubt evaporates in a split-second because you’ve finally done it and never have to be asked again, “When are you ever going to win it?”
As I mentioned, after relief comes jubilation and following that comes satisfaction. You get to see the satisfaction of so many other people’s efforts. Yes we drivers get all the glory and the accolades, but NASCAR is a team sport. So many people had a hand in my winning this race 25 years ago and whoever wins it this Sunday will tell you the same thing.
There’s the manufacturer, the engine guys, the body guys, the pit crew, the sponsors, the owner and on and on. Each played a vital role to get me to that point to allow me to do my job to the fullest. I’ve been blessed. I won a bunch of races in this sport. Easily one of the most satisfying moments was seeing and sharing the complete joy with everyone both on the road and back at Hendrick Motorsports when collectively we won the 1989 Daytona 500.
So 25 years ago I experienced the greatest win in my career. This Sunday the same will be said for some other blessed driver. It’s a career-defining race. I think all the pieces are in place for this Daytona 500 to be one for the record books. Obviously we’ve already started things off right with the return of the No. 3 and young Austin Dillon on the pole.
Sunday also marks the start of our 14th year with our NASCAR on FOX coverage. If you don’t have the opportunity to be down here for the race, I hope you’ll tune in because something just tells me it’s going to be historic and for one driver, a whole new chapter in their life is about to begin.