Darrell Waltrip seals Hall date with kiss
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Richard Petty leaned over and whispered as Darrell Waltrip, fists pumping and tears flowing, walked onto the stage to shake hands with and -- strangely enough -- kiss NASCAR chairman Brian France after being named Tuesday to the sport's 2012 Hall of Fame class.
"If he didn't get in they'd need an ambulance to get him out of here," NASCAR's all-time winningest driver said with a laugh on Tuesday.
It was emotional because Waltrip believed he deserved to go in last year with the second class. Part of him, because of his contributions as a driver and television analyst, believed he should have been in the first class with Petty and the founding fathers of the sport.
It was emotional because of all the talk about how politics kept Waltrip and Yarborough from going in a year earlier, with them knowing that could come into play again.
It was as it should have been Tuesday, a class selected based on performance and not overshadowed by reasons why others didn't get in. More importantly, it was a class that went beyond the confines of the Sprint Cup Series with the selection of Evans, the king of modified racing.
This was about NASCAR.
This was not about controversy.
This may have been the best class yet.
"It is hard to debate and argue too much on this class," France said.
That wasn't the case with the first class in 2010, when David Pearson was an obvious oversight. That wasn't the case with the second class in 2011, when Yarborough and Waltrip should have been in, based on pure numbers.
That led to debates on personalities and grudges and the impact of contributions -- or in Yarborough's case, a lack of contributions -- to the sport after retirement.
None of that was here on this day. Bitterness and hard feelings were replaced by tears and -- again, yes -- an unexpected kiss.
"That just shows you how emotional I got," said Waltrip, who won 84 races and three championships (1981-82, '85). "I lost my head. What was I thinking? Well, I just kissed him on the cheek. There was an embrace. Let's just say I embraced him, because it felt good to get embraced by the committee today."
There were a lot of emotional moments to embrace. Len Wood barely could talk after watching his father, Glen, make the class.
"This is bigger than winning the Daytona 500," he said, referring to Trevor Bayne's February victory for the famed Wood Brothers organization his father helped found.
But nothing topped the emotion of Waltrip, admittedly nervous after being omitted a year ago.
"I was," Waltrip said. "When you don't get in on the first go-around, that's understandable. Then the second go-around comes along and you say, 'Man, I don't know. I felt pretty good about that one.'
"Then you get to this point and you start wondering, maybe there's something, maybe there is something that is going to keep me from getting in for a while."
There was something. Waltrip seemingly alienated as many with his brashness in the broadcast booth as he did with his aggressive driving style on the track. It was made quite clear by some on the 55-member voting panel after the first class was announced that he would have to wait a year or two.
Politics kept Yarborough out of the Hall a year ago as well. There were some who believed that because he didn't continue giving to the sport after he stepped away as an owner in 1999, that because he had the nerve to support another series that never got off the ground in the early 2000s, that because he had the gall to ask to be paid to attend events, he didn't deserve to be in the second class.
Apparently, the hard feelings didn't carry any further. Yarborough received 85 percent of the vote and Waltrip 82 percent after both were in the 40 percent range a year ago.
The only debate about this class was whether some of the sport's all-time great drivers -- Tim Flock, Herb Thomas, Fireball Roberts -- were left off in favor of those who are alive and able to accept the selection.
Of the five 2012 inductees, only Evans is not living.
But had Yarborough or Waltrip been left off again, the league might as well have locked the doors to the Hall and gone home.
"I feel like the people that voted this year probably were more ... looked at your record more maybe than they did last year," Waltrip said. "There was a lot of sentiment in the early going to get some of the pioneers into the Hall right away.
"I think this year it was maybe more on performance, and not so much other things."
You may be wondering why Yarborough didn't make the two-hour drive from his farm in Sardis, S.C., to personally accept his bid. It wasn't because NASCAR wouldn't pay him or because he was protesting for being overlooked a year ago.
It was because the sport's first three-time consecutive champion (1976-78) is recovering from back surgery to remove a cyst in his spine, because he can't bend over, much less spend a few hours in the car.
Were it not for that Yarborough says he would have been right beside Waltrip, Inman and Glen Wood celebrating.
"It's a shame that politics have to play so much into it," Yarborough said by phone. "I don't know much more I could do to support it. I love the sport. It was good to me. I watch every one of the races. After I closed my team down, what was I supposed to do?"
He was supposed to do what he wanted. If that meant running his Honda dealership in Florence, S.C., and plowing the corn, wheat and soybean fields on his 4,000-acre farm, then so be it.
"I did that for 33 years," Yarborough said of racing.
Yarborough deserved to be here for what he did as a driver and owner. His 83 wins behind the wheel rank behind only Petty (200), David Pearson (105), Bobby Allison (84), Waltrip (84) and Jeff Gordon (84) in the history of the sport.
His three consecutive Sprint Cup titles were unprecedented until Jimmie Johnson came along and won five straight.
And when you talk about moments that changed the direction of the sport, most point to the postrace fight between Yarborough and the Allison brothers, Bobby and Donnie, at the 1979 Daytona 500.
"It made NASCAR," Yarborough said. "I didn't do that on purpose, but it sure turned out good for NASCAR."
Getting into the Hall of Fame shouldn't be about what you've done for the sport since retiring. As Yarborough said, "I paid my dues."
So did Inman, who won a record eight Cup titles as a crew chief -- seven for Petty and one for Terry Labonte. So did Glen Wood, who helped the Wood Brothers collect 98 victories with some of the best drivers the sport has known.
So did Evans, who won nine NASCAR modified titles in a 13-year span, including eight in a row from 1978-85.
This arguably was the best class so far because it had everything to do with accomplishments and nothing to do with politics or personal feelings, because it stands for everything the Hall of Fame should be.
It brought out so much emotion that the stoic Mike Helton, NASCAR's president, admittedly teared up.
"You cry?" a reporter asked Helton.
"No, I said, I teared up," Helton said with a smile. "I had a moment of allergies."
There were a lot of allergic moments in the room, with Waltrip claiming the most. Petty was right. Had Waltrip not been selected he would have needed help getting home.
Those tears of joy would have been tears of sadness.
"Yes, I was sick to my stomach," said Waltrip, who'll be enshrined with the 2012 class in January. "I really was, getting here. I didn't want to be disappointed again."
Nobody was for a change.
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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