Race Weekend Central

31 Days ‘Til Daytona: The 31st (1989) Daytona 500

On Feb. 17, 1989, Darrell Waltrip closed a painfully long chapter of his NASCAR Cup Series career.

After finishing second in the Daytona 500 10 years prior, and enduring a streak of three consecutive third-place finishes from 1984 through 1986, Waltrip finally collected the checkered flag in the Great American Race and ended a 17-year chase for the most coveted trophy in NASCAR.

Though not widely remembered for its racing action, which looks irreconcilable with the modern superspeedway product, the 1989 season opener was nonetheless one of the most heart-wrenching and anxiety-inducing in the event’s history.

Waltrip began the race in second place alongside his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Ken Schrader but quickly pulled ahead of Schrader’s No. 25 Chevrolet by the end of the first lap. The very next lap, Neil Bonnett‘s No. 21 Wood Brothers Racing entry came to a halt at the entry of turn 3 with flames under the hood. A full lap later, the yellow flag finally flew to bring out the first caution of the race.

During the ensuing caution, Bill Elliott climbed out of his No. 9 Ford to hand over driving duties to Jody Ridley. Elliott had broken his left wrist during a Friday practice session and had planned to start the race and contest just one lap in order to collect points for starting the event.

See also
33 Days ‘Til Daytona: The 33rd (1991) Daytona 500

That chaos aside, the dynamics that would define the ongoing battle for control of the race made themselves perfectly apparent when racing resumed. Waltrip and Schrader immediately locked bumpers and began trading blows for the lead.

Interrupting the otherwise blistering pace of the race was Davey Allison, who was sent spinning down the backstretch on lap 24. At this point in time there was no proper barrier separating the backstretch grass from Daytona International Speedway’s iconic Lake Lloyd. Instead, Allison’s spinning car was greeted by a large soil and grass embankment, which sent the No. 28 machine into a hard, slow, awkward barrel roll. After one full rotation, the car came to a stop right side up, with no major damage immediately apparent.

Somehow, Allison was able to bring the car back to the pits for quick repairs and drove to a 25th-place finish, only seven laps down.

Schrader proved to be the class of the field as he led 114 of 200 laps in search of his first Daytona 500 victory. Dale Earnhardt spent much of the race, particularly after the halfway point, stuck to the rear bumper of Schrader, despite only leading three laps throughout the race. Later in the race it was revealed that the close drafting technique employed by Schrader and Earnhardt netted them a quarter of a second per lap over the pack of cars behind them.

While the two leaders and Waltrip all took turns falling back through the pack as pit cycles and 1980s-level reliability factored into the race, these three Chevrolets were far and away the cars to beat.

On lap 72 came the first proper pileup of the race when contact between Ridley, Chad Little and Mark Martin sent the former two spinning, triggering a multi-car crash behind them. Terry Labonte and Dale Jarrett were also involved; Jarrett ended the day many laps down while Labonte took a ninth-place result.

Once racing resumed, Waltrip and Earnhardt again asserted their status as cars to beat while Schrader lingered in the second pack for a brief stint. Interruptions came in the form of crashes for Martin and Phil Barkdoll on laps 110 and 143, respectively, but the status quo at the front remained unchanged save for a brief appearance in the lead for Phil Parsons.

By the time Barkdoll’s car came to a rest on the driver’s side door in a crash strangely reminiscent of Allison’s lap 24 tumble, some drivers were already considering how fuel strategy would play into the end of the race.

Waltrip made his final pit stop on lap 147, leaving Waltrip to stretch 53 laps out of one load of fuel. For good measure, 50 laps was the average fuel stint at race pace. Without help from a caution or two, the No. 17 was going all or nothing on a very unlikely strategy. The race was not caution-heavy, at least by today’s standards, and the field was quite spread out in its final stages. Drafting help was going to be scarce, making fuel conservation a tall order for everybody.

At this point, with less than 50 laps remaining, a new contender emerged in the form of owner/driver Alan Kulwicki, who opted to gamble alongside Waltrip and push toward the race’s end without pitting again. Kulwicki and Waltrip were running sixth and seventh with 30 laps to go.

On lap 183, the commentary crew reminded those watching at home that the leaders had another pit stop coming. Earnhardt’s crew chief, future Hall of Fame inductee Kirk Shelmerdine, had told CBS not long beforehand that the No. 3 would be brought down pit road “pretty close to the end” of the race, and the assumption was that Schrader, Kulwicki and Waltrip would follow suit.

Schrader and Earnhardt blinked first on lap 189. Earnhardt’s crew gifted their driver a faster stop for fuel and got the Intimidator back on track with a healthy lead over the No. 25. Kulwicki assumed the lead with 10 to go before running dry on lap 196, leaving Waltrip to fend for himself without certain drafting help.

“I think he’s going to take the gamble,” Ken Squier said as Waltrip came down the frontstretch to start lap 197. “What has he got to lose? The only thing they remember is first place.”

Waltrip quickly attached himself to the bumper of Rusty Wallace, who was multiple laps down by this point. With two laps remaining, Waltrip slotted in behind Labonte, running as close to the No. 11 as possible in a desperate effort to conserve fuel.

Then the white flag flew. Waltrip stuck to Labonte while Schrader and Earnhardt ran almost 10 seconds behind the leader. Out of turn 4 came Rick Wilson, then Labonte, then Waltrip, for whom the checkered flag flew.

“Out of turn 4, after 17 years of effort,” Squier said. “The Daytona 500 belongs to Franklin, Tennessee’s Darrell Waltrip! He’s done it … he’s done it.”

See also
34 Days ‘Til Daytona: The 34th (1992) Daytona 500

It was a victory 17 years in the making. Despite being often overlooked, Waltrip’s Daytona 500 drought almost seems to have inspired another NASCAR legend’s infamously unhealthy relationship with the event. By the time Earnhardt finally conquered the Great American Race in his 20th attempt in 1998, the heartbreak he had endured at the hands of the series’ season opener was something approaching legendary. While not as well-documented, and certainly not as ironically cruel, Waltrip’s unfortunate history at Daytona was creeping up on too much to bear — he was already a three-time champion with 73 wins to his name.

The Daytona 500 being nowhere to be found within those 73 wins was surely weighing on Waltrip as he strapped into his Tide-sponsored Chevy that day.

In fact, Daytona didn’t appear in Waltrip’s win column in any points-paying capacity. Waltrip had taken four consecutive top-five finishes in the summer Daytona race from 1985 to 1988 to partner his aforementioned streak of third-place results in the 500 from 1984 to 1986, but the trophy had always eluded him at World Center of Racing.

The (original) Daytona 500 drought was over.

Always a large personality, Waltrip was on the edge of his composure when Mike Joy caught up to him in victory lane to conduct one of the most emotional interviews in the 500’s history.

“Oh, I won the Daytona 500,” Waltrip shouted. “I won the Daytona 500! Hey, wait, wait! This is the Daytona 500, isn’t it? Don’t tell me it isn’t! Thank god!”

Then, channeling the spirit of then-Cincinnati Bengals running back Elbert “Ickey” Woods, Waltrip put on his best Ickey Shuffle before spiking his helmet to celebrate scoring perhaps the biggest proverbial touchdown of his Cup career.

Now, finally, the elder Waltrip brother had made his peace with NASCAR’s biggest race at its most famous track. Having already won three titles, the Winston 500 twice, the Coca-Cola 600 four times (with a fifth coming later that year), he only needed to collect a Southern 500 to complete NASCAR’s Grand Slam, which he did in 1992.

Waltrip only touched the top 10 in a points-paying Cup race at Daytona one more time, in the 1997 500, before retiring from full-time competition after the 2000 season. The 1989 season brought five more wins and a fourth-place points finish for the No. 17 team, with five more wins to follow across 1991 and 1992. It was Hendrick Motorsports’ second Daytona 500 victory after Geoff Bodine‘s triumph in 1986, with more to come from Jeff Gordon (1997, 1999, 2005), Jimmie Johnson (2006, 2013) and Dale Earnhardt Jr. (2014).

After stepping away from full-time driving duties, Waltrip joined the FOX broadcast team, with whom he called multiple Daytona 500s from 2001 to 2019, including two 500 wins for younger brother Michael Waltrip in 2001 and 2003.

There was no widespread speculation that the Daytona 500 held a grudge against Waltrip as it seemed to hold toward Earnhardt, nor was there a wall of crew members lined up to greet Waltrip on his way to victory lane after he finally wrestled the race into submission. There was no chatter about how Waltrip’s career may have been defined by the one race he didn’t win rather than all the races he did win.

Instead, there was a cry of thanks to God, a healthy stream of tears of relief, the only documented Ickey Shuffle in NASCAR history and peace finally forged between NASCAR’s greatest race and one of its greatest drivers.

About the author

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Alex is the IndyCar Content Director at Frontstretch, having initially joined as an entry-level contributor in 2021. He also serves as Managing Director of The Asia Cable, a publication focused on the international affairs and politics of the Asia-Pacific region which he co-founded in 2023. With previous experience in China, Japan and Poland, Alex is particularly passionate about the international realm of motorsport and the politics that make the wheels turn - literally - behind the scenes.

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Dawg

Looking forward to the 24 hours of Daytona, & of course the 500, but not the Clash.

Joshua Farmer

Yeah, the Clash needs to be at Daytona and the LA Coliseum a 400 lap regular points race.

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