- Mark Ashenfelter, NASCAR
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It's being billed as "One and Done," but it could just as easily be
"You Never Know" where Darrell Waltrip's concerned.
A year ago in Martinsville, Va., Waltrip was making no secret that his start in the
Craftsman Truck Series race would be the last NASCAR start of a stellar career highlighted by three Winston Cup championships.
Then rain wiped out qualifying, denying Waltrip a chance to make
Back in April, Waltrip again was set for his final start, except for the
small matter of qualifying. A tick slower than needed to make the field,
Waltrip quickly pointed out that it couldn't be his last race if he actually
didn't race. It was a point not even his wife, Stevie, could argue.
This time, though, Waltrip knows he's in the field for Saturday's Kroger
200. He owns two full-time entries in the series, and his No. 12 truck has used several drivers over the course of the season. With Waltrip inside
the top 30 in owner's points, the truck is guaranteed a berth in the field.
So instead of trying to qualify a third truck for the race, one
without any guarantees of making the field, Waltrip has decided to drive it
So surely this is his last start. Right?
"I told you not to ask me that," a laughing Waltrip says on a
conference call. "It's my last race this year. I can promise you that. I
love doing this. I love getting the opportunity to do it. You can only run
your last race so many times. So most likely this will be my last Craftsman
Truck Series race at Martinsville. Let's leave it that way."
In other words, Waltrip might yet try to rival the likes of Michael
Jordan for the number of times he comes out of retirement if the right
opportunity presents itself.
And, like Jordan, 58-year-old Waltrip has the credentials to do whatever he
wants. For now, though, he's just looking for a strong run at Martinsville,
a place where he has won 11 Cup races and has a top finish of fifth in a truck
back in 1996.
With that in mind, he tested at Martinsville for two days recently
and that has just gotten him even more pumped up. With the trucks impounded after qualifying, Waltrip was able to focus on dialing in his race setup.
"One of the things I love about working with the Toyota guys in the
Craftsman Truck Series is that we share notes," Waltrip says. "At the end
of the day, [the Toyota teams] could all sit down and compare notes - what
springs, shocks, etc. We know what shock package guys have got. We know
what spring package they've got. We look at lap times. It's a coordinated
effort, and it makes it so much better for all of us to be able to share
like that. So we had two good days of testing.
"Physically, I have been working out since July - really, really hard -- wanting to be sure that I was physically prepared for this race. I'm
probably in the best shape I've been in going into one of these for quite
some time. Being the last race I'm going to run, I wanted to physically be
in good shape. I'm mentally really excited about it. The preparation of the
truck is good. It should be a great weekend."
Waltrip already knows it'll be more relaxing because he doesn't have to
focus on qualifying.
"It just takes the pressure off of going up there and saying I've got
to qualify in the top five or 10, or whatever it would have been [to make the field]," Waltrip says. "It gives me an opportunity to relax a
little bit. Not racing but just every now and then, that qualifying thing is
just really, really difficult. That will make my weekend a whole lot more
enjoyable, and knowing that I'm going to get to race makes it a whole lot
David Reutimann drives Waltrip's other full-time truck after getting
his first real break from the owner. Reutimann returned the favor by winning at Nashville, Tenn., earlier this season, and this weekend, his No. 17 truck will carry "Thanks DW" on the hood where the logo of sponsor NTN normally appears.
Reutimann said the idea was first broached with Rick Thomas, president of NTN Bearing Corp. Who knows, maybe all the hoopla eventually will
make it too hard for Waltrip to decide to have another episode of
"One and Done" in the future.
"It's a small way of letting DW know that we appreciate and know all
he's done for NASCAR and for the Craftsman Truck Series," Reutimann says. "It shows how much NTN appreciates everything DW has done. It also shows our
support as a team. It's sad to see him go, but I'm glad he's got the
opportunity to go out the way he wants to go."
Waltrip, though, won't say he's going out just yet, pointing out that
there will be a Busch Series race at Martinsville in 2006. That's why he'll
only say this is his final Truck Series race at the track.
On Saturday, Waltrip will be together with former crew chief and
fellow Fox broadcaster Jeff Hammond once again. This time, though, Hammond
will serve only as Waltrip's honorary crew chief. And Waltrip's likely to
pop up on the broadcast, too, making for a busy day.
Rest assured, he'll love every minute of it. Waltrip suspects he
might even get to yell out his customary "Boogity, Boogity, Boogity" to
start the race.
No matter what happens in the race, Waltrip will cherish the time
spent leading up to the race.
"[People ask,] 'Why do you do this?' A couple of things. I do it because I want to continue to be in the driver fraternity," Waltrip says. "I
was so happy at Martinsville [testing] last week. I had on my great big
Toyota Tundra uniform. I've got my truck there. I've got my team there. I'm
parked right next to Jimmie Johnson, and we're talking 'driver talk.' Right
next to me is Kyle Busch, and we're talking 'driver talk.'
"I'm talking to Sterling Marlin and Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards, and
we're not talking about TV and production -- we're talking race cars. We're
talking racing. We're talking about things that I love, and that's driving.
It gives me a chance to hang out with those guys. It also gives me a chance
to continue to stay involved and connected to them - what they're thinking,
what they're feeling, what they're having to deal with -- and any way I cut it,
that's got to be a big plus for me when I do go up in the booth on Sundays
to talk about the race."
But for one more Saturday, possibly just this one more Saturday,
Waltrip plans to do more racing than talking. Now it's just a matter of
whether he can go out in a blaze of glory.
"I'm going into this weekend - and I don't have anything to lose. I'm
not running for points," Waltrip says. "I'm not going to do anything crazy -
don't get me wrong -- but I'm going in with the attitude I'm going to put it
all on the line, baby. This is one shot I've got. I think I've got the best
chance I've had in quite some time. I'm going to go in there and give it 100
percent, and hopefully come out of there with a great finish and maybe a
win. Can you imagine if I win that race? Can you imagine what it would be
like? Holy cow."
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at NASCAR Scene magazine and a contributor to ESPN.com.