Brash and outspoken when he came onto the national scene, Darrell Waltrip (February 5, 1947) of Franklin, Tennessee, refined his youthfully-aggressiveness to become one of the most successful drivers in NASCAR’s Cup Series. He also eventually became a popular “elder states-man” for his sport and a talented TV commentator upon his retirement from driving.
Born in Owensboro, Kentucky, Waltrip began racing Go-Karts in 1959 then in 1963 turned to the local short tracks with a 1936 Chevrolet coupe he and his father Leroy built.
In the late 1960s, Waltrip moved to Franklin, Tennessee, to drive P.B. Crowell & Charles Reed’s first-class red and white No. 48 Chevelle in Late Model Sportsman action at the half-mile Fairgrounds Speedway in Nashville where he became a big winner. As someone who was not shy about publicity, he was also a big help to the region’s tracks by promoting their events.
In all, Waltrip won a record 67 races at Nashville – including 1987’s prestigious All American 400 – where he was a two-time (1970 & 1973) track champion in his No. 17 Terminal Transport Chevrolet; a car numbered in honor of his favorite driver, fellow EMPA Hall of Fame member David Pearson. His success there led him to NASCAR’s Cup Series.
Waltrip’s first race in his No. 95 Terminal Transport 1971 Mercury Cyclone – the chassis of which had been under the No. 11 Holman-Moody Ford that EMPA Hall of Famer Mario Andretti used to win the 1967 Daytona 500 – was on May 7, 1972, in the Winston 500 at Tall-adega (Ala.) Superspeedway where he started 38th but dropped out on lap 69 with engine failure.
That inauspicious start, however, did not halt Waltrip’s desire and drive and – with the exception of four races in the No. 15 Bud Moore Engineering Ford in 1973 – he drove his own Mercury and Chevrolets (numbered 95 and then 17) with better and better results, winning his first Cup Series race – the Music City 420 – in his 50th start on May 10, 1975, at Nashville.
On August 17, 1975, Waltrip – who had earned the nickname “Jaws” for his outspoken ways – began his stint (1975-1980) in the green and white No. 88 DiGard Gatorade Chevrolets and Oldsmobiles in which he won 26 races. He then bought-out his contract so he could drive the No. 11 Buicks and Chevrolets of EMPA Hall of Famer Junior Johnson and with those Pepsi, Mountain Dew and Budweiser entries he won 43 races (1981-1986) and three (1981-1982 & 1985) NASCAR Cup Series Championships before leaving to join car owner Rick Hendrick.
“D.W.” drove the orange, yellow and white No. 17 Hendrick Motorsports/Tide Chevrolet to nine wins (1987-1989), including his only Daytona 500 victory in 1989. He then won five races in his own No. 17 Western Auto Chevrolet (1990-1998) before finishing out his Cup Series career in the No. 1 Pennzoil Chevrolet of EMPA Hall of Fame member Dale Earnhardt Sr. (March-July 1998), Tim Beverly’s No. 35 Tabasco Pontiac (August-November 1998) and the No. 66 “Big-K” Ford Taurus owned by Travis Carter (1999-2000).
One of NASCAR’s Top-50 Drivers, Waltrip ran in nine NASCAR Truck Series races (2002-2005) before ending his driving career in a second-tier Busch Series race on July 22, 2006, at the half-mile Martinsville (Va.) Speedway.
In all, Darrell Waltrip had 84 NASCAR Cup Series wins (37 on superspeedways), 59 poles (23 on superspeedways), 271 top-fives and 390 top-10s in 809 starts. He won five (1978-1979, 1985 & 1988-1989) Coca-Cola 600s at the 1.5-mile Charlotte (N.C.) Motor Speedway; had 12 wins – seven consecutive – on the half-mile high banks at Bristol (Tenn.) International Speedway; and, recorded his last victory in the 1992 Southern 500 at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway.
He also won 13 NASCAR Busch Series races, including five (1978-1979, 1983-1984 & 1989) Goody’s 300s at the 2.5-mile Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Florida.