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Winston Cup Series

Thursday, September 25

Jaws was and is a talker
Associated Press

A brash newcomer came into NASCAR and annoyed the older, established drivers by winning races and gloating about it. The fans didn't care much for him, either, booing unmercifully at nearly every opportunity.

Kevin Harvick? Kurt Busch? Nah, it was Darrell Waltrip, ol' D.W., now an analyst for Fox's coverage of NASCAR and one of the most popular people in the garage.

It hardly started that way.

Darrell Waltrip
Darrell Waltrip won 84 Winston Cup races during his career.

"When he first came into the sport, he liked to talk," said Cale Yarborough, who gave Waltrip the nickname "Jaws."

When Waltrip made his first Winston Cup start in 1972 at age 25, he was a lot like other rookies. He drove a car he owned, worked long hours during the week just to make it to the next race, then spent a lot more time underneath the hood once he got to the track.

And he didn't have much success right away, needing three years to win his first race.

"I was a one-man show," Waltrip said.

He also didn't lack any confidence.

"Everybody else until that time had come in and just worked their way into the sport," seven-time Winston Cup champ Richard Petty said. "Darrell came in and threw up a sign that said, 'I'm Darrell Waltrip and I'm here.'

"It didn't hurt anything. He'd just run his mouth, and to begin with, that was the only way he could get his name in the paper."

As long as Waltrip wasn't winning, he wasn't much of a bother to the veteran drivers. But he won two races in 1975 after joining DiGard Racing, then had a breakout season in 1977, winning six times.

His confidence grew with each victory, and he wasn't shy about sharing it with other people.

"I had a reporter one time tell me, 'Waltrip, you're a great interview, but you talk too much,"' Waltrip said. "He told me I talked and talked and talked, and eventually I'd say something that would get myself in trouble.

"I was always like that. Talk, talk, talk, talk."

Most of Waltrip's comments had a theme, that veteran drivers such as Petty and Yarborough couldn't keep up with a young man like himself. Soon, Yarborough fired back.

He and Waltrip tangled frequently in 1977, including a wreck at Darlington while racing for the lead. Their cars were running side-by-side coming off the second turn as they approached a pair of lapped cars.

Neither of the leaders backed off, and the result was a four-car wreck.

In the garage, Yarborough placed the blame for the accident on "Jaws" Waltrip. It was the first time the nickname was used, and it stuck.

"When that thing happened, the movie 'Jaws' was really hot, and I just thought the movie and Darrell went together real good," Yarborough said.

Waltrip retaliated in the verbal sparring, making fun of Yarborough over his complaints about the race conditions at Martinsville a few weeks later, an event run with temperatures close to 95.

When Waltrip won at North Wilkesboro later that season, he gave the race a degree of difficulty of only a 1 or 2 on the "Cale" scale.

Today, Yarborough plays down the rivalry.

"The press was having a bigger time with it than we were," he said. "We just played along with them."

Two years after his run-ins with Yarborough, Waltrip challenged for the championship for the first time. The other contender? Petty, the "King" of the sport, a driver who already had six titles.

The duo took the chase down to the final event of the year, with Waltrip holding a two-point lead. An early spin dropped him a lap behind and he never recovered, eventually finishing eighth.

Petty finished fifth and won his seventh championship by 11 points.

"He definitely learned from that," Petty said. "You've got to figure, he was the new guy on the block, running against somebody who'd been there, done that. He tried to psyche me out a little bit by talking about me, but that was a waste of time.

"In the long run, he psyched himself out."

Tangling with Petty had another consequence, too. Waltrip quickly became the bad guy in the battle, and that's when the booing started.

"Sure, I can laugh about it now," Waltrip said. "It sure wasn't funny at the time. Those older drivers and their fans didn't like me very much, because I was winning races and taking money out of their pockets."

But he learned his lessons and won back-to-back championships in 1981-82, then added a third title in 1985. Despite the success, he had a tough time convincing fans he was a changed man, until one moment during The Winston in 1989 helped turn them in his favor.

Coming down to the finish, Waltrip was leading Rusty Wallace for the victory in the non-points event as they came off the fourth turn for the white flag. Wallace nudged Waltrip and sent him spinning through the infield grass, and Wallace held on to win.

This time, it was Wallace's turn to hear the boos.

"The deal with Darrell changed that day," Petty said. "It was a 180-degree deal with those fans. All the sudden, Darrell may have still been the bad guy, but he wasn't as bad as the other cat."

The change culminated at the end of that season, when Waltrip was voted Most Popular Driver for the first time.

Waltrip, 56, is in his third year of retirement. His era has passed - "At least I had an era," he quipped - and he watches young drivers such as Harvick and Busch follow in his footsteps, on and off the track.

Those two have been fined and placed on probation in the past two seasons.

Before the Southern 500 at Darlington last month, Waltrip pulled Busch aside and talked to him for several minutes, and they exchanged phone numbers.

"I love Kurt Busch and what he does for NASCAR," Waltrip said. "He's feisty, he's cocky, and he's a great driver. NASCAR needs drivers like Kurt Busch. I just want to let him know about some things I learned early in my career about know when to stop talking."

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