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NASCAR-WCUP: Waltrip Avoids The Talladega Big Wreck

28 April 1998

Darrell Waltrip
Darrell Waltrip
When Bill Elliott tumbled in the tri-oval with less than 50 laps to go at Talladega Superspeedway on Sunday and flames from his car reigned down on Dale Earnhardt, Pennzoil Monte Carlo driver Darrell Waltrip wasn't surprised. Waltrip didn't know two of the sport's biggest names would be Talladega's victims, but he knew a lot of people were about to be involved in a very big wreck.

"I kinda called it and told the crew something was up," Waltrip said minutes after posting a season's best 15th place. "Sure enough, they had a big wreck."

A week before the race, Waltrip said the secret to success at the 2.66-mile track was avoiding the big wreck. His statement wasn't made of cowardice, or lack of competitiveness. Someone scared of Talladega wouldn't sit behind the wheel and race side-by-side at speeds of almost 200 mph. Instead Waltrip's statement was a rational observation by an experienced racer. Since the introduction of restrictor plate racing in the late 1980s, the field is so tightly bunched that a two-or three-car accident at other tracks all too often become a 20-car accident at Talladega.

The secret is to run well, but most importantly miss the wreck.

Sunday added to the lore. As the tightly-bunched leaders raced through the trioval, Ward Burton struck Earnhardt's car who in turn hit Bill Elliott. Elliott tumbled in front of the pack spraying flames over Earnhardt's car. Almost 20 other cars were damaged in the ensuing melee. Earnhardt suffered facial burns and Elliott flew home to see his own doctor, but no major injuries were reported.

Waltrip managed to avoid the sliding cars and navigated through the smoke and carnage. Despite having fallen down a lap earlier in the race because of a tire vibration, his survival meant a season's best 15th place finish. Just as important, the Dale Earnhardt Inc. team loaded an undamaged car in the Pennzoil hauler after the race.

"We have an undamaged car and a decent finish, but I'm sure glad this is over," Waltrip said. "This restrictor plate racing just isn't fun for the drivers."

In an effort to slow the cars, NASCAR introduced the restrictor plate, which limits the air intake into the engine thus curbing power. It has a dramatic effect on the drivers.

"This track is just mentally tough on the drivers," said the three-time Winston Cup champion. "These motors aren't strong enough for a driver to get out of the throttle and recover so all of us try to keep the accelerator to the floor board and kind of ride the break. You are so reluctant to get out of the throttle that sometimes you will run over one another."

Waltrip held his own at the beginning of the race drafting in the lead pack that sometimes included as many as 20 cars running nose-to-tail, and frequently, side by side sometimes three and four cars deep.

The Pennzoil Monte Carlo held about 25th place when Waltrip came in for right side tires just pas the 50-lap mark. Immediately after returning to the track, he reported a strange vibration. Waltrip and the crew debated whether to return to the pits to correct the problem - a move sure to end chances of a good finish. Waltrip stayed on the track but lost the draft which allowed the leaders to lap the Pennzoil car at the halfway mark and he dropped to about 35th place..

Four new tires corrected the problem and Waltrip posted respectable times for the remainder of the race as he moved up the chart because of the wreck.

"We really weren't that bad today," Waltrip said. "Just in the middle that problem got to us, but we didn't have a bad day. It's something to build on."

Waltrip and the Pennzoil team return to the track next weekend at the California Speedway.

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