The 2019 Food City 500 has given NASCAR some food for thought on their future. The news cycle at Bristol Motor Speedway was hijacked this week by the man who once won every Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race there for three-and-a-half years straight. Darrell Waltrip chose his Tennessee sanctuary, Thunder Valley, to announce his retirement from the FOX broadcasting booth.
DW's retirement from racing, for good, closes a chapter in NASCAR... and for me. Full transparency: the man was my hero growing up. As an eight-year-old sitting inside one summer afternoon, watching a No. 17 Tide Chevrolet reach Victory Lane would transform my life. I was a stock car fan from that moment on, seeking a career in sports far different than most middle-class kids growing up in Connecticut.
I spent the next decade idolizing a man in his 40s while friends put up posters of Michael Jordan, Derek Jeter, and Brett Favre. But the fact kids like me could connect with an athlete in Waltrip tells you a lot about his personality. Remember, this 84-race winner and three-time Cup Series champion went the final eight-plus years of his career without a trip to Victory Lane.
"I always like to say that when I'd go to town, people'd say are you here with the show?" Waltrip explained during his first retirement announcement in 1999 (as a driver). "I'd say, no, I'm the show. That's been my career in a nutshell."
It's a phrase he repeated Friday during retirement announcement number two and a philosophy that served him well early on in the FOX broadcast booth. His call of brother Michael winning the 2001 Daytona 500, completed at the same moment Dale Earnhardt died in a Turn 3 crash will remain one of the sport's legendary calls forever. Waltrip's debut race will forever be one of his best.
The raw emotion was more showman-like than soft-spoken Ned Jarrett, the other NASCAR Hall of Famer who got to call his family's Daytona 500 win (son Dale). But that passion defined who Waltrip was, paired with a strong belief in faith. People forget his leadership after Earnhardt's death that year, bringing the sport together the following week at Rockingham and beyond. A new frontman was needed and while Waltrip couldn't drive to the front anymore, he could drive the national conversation and keep the garage buzzing through his voice.
In that post-Earnhardt era, Waltrip became the epicenter of NASCAR broadcasting as the sport peaked in the mid-2000s. A second Hall of Fame career was built when most athletes only get one.
"It's been a great run," Waltrip said Friday. "I was holding onto a steering wheel for 30 years. I let go of that wheel, I grabbed hold of a microphone.... 30 years in a car and almost 20 years behind a TV camera, you can't ask for any more."
I was lucky enough to work with Waltrip tangentially for three-plus years as part of the FOX broadcast crew. For some reason, I did the opposite of what most people would do working for their hero; I avoided too much contact. It was an incredible experience to see him behind the scenes but as the young 20-something building a television career I never wanted that superfan to come out, hounding him for an autograph or a story after production meetings. Longtime FOX Producer Barry Landis used to tease me about it but seeing my hero excel, playing a part in our weekly success was enough.
Waltrip does have a habit of stretching it, though and just like his driving career he could have left broadcasting a few years back. As NASCAR's popularity fell this decade criticism of him in the booth has risen incrementally. Love affairs with drivers through the years like Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kyle Busch have driven concerns about bias.
"Am I biased?" he said Friday. "You're darn right I am. Everybody in this room is. One way or another, when you write a story, when you tell somebody something, you always have to put your own kind of spin on it, your own personal opinion. We're all guilty of that. I don't care if you say, 'No. I went to journalism school, I sit on my hands, I don't clap.' That's bull crap because that's what we all do. That's what I've done. This is what I know."
But bias concerns aren't the only reasons driving a push for Waltrip's retirement. A 72-year-old whose personality outweighs analysis no longer can connect with the younger millennial generation NASCAR covets. The "boogity, boogity, boogity" schtick to start a race has now grown corny and old. Twenty-one-year-olds who appreciate it are few and far between, left hiding in the corner rather than proudly proclaiming their fandom. The trio of Waltrip, play-by-play man Mike Joy and 47-year-old Jeff Gordon have seemed a bit lost as the sport has changed significantly in recent years; they've resorted to silly jokes and forced banter far too often. An AP article by Jenna Fryer this week called the current three-man booth a "carnival-like yukfest."
FOX's NASCAR ratings have also fallen at a more precipitous rate than the season's second half on NBC. Some of that is due to the sport's singular focus on a 10-race playoff system at the expense of the regular season. But there's increased concern the network is more out of touch with the product and Waltrip's departure gives them options to get younger. They could go with a two-man broadcast booth next year or sign someone like Jeff Burton away from NBC while waiting for the next group of popular, in-touch drivers and crew chiefs to retire. Kevin Harvick, Chad Knaus or perhaps Jimmie Johnson have all been floated as possibilities down the road.
But for now, all eyes are rightly trained on DW, a man who's shaped the sport for five different decades as a driver, owner, promoter and now a NASCAR broadcaster. The criticism of the end, like his driving career will fade quickly into the rear-view mirror. What we'll be left with will be an enduring legacy of one of the great characters the sport has ever known.
"I've loved every minute of it," he said. "I've learned from every person I ever worked for. Many things I've told you.... don't beat yourself. I did that and I learned the hard way that that's the worst kind of defeat you can have. Hear me now, believe me later, unintended consequence, things I harp on all the time. Those are things everybody needs to take to heart.
"You get what you give."
Food City 500
Time: 2 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Track: Bristol Motor Speedway (Bristol, Tenn.)
Radio: PRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who's at the Front: Denny Hamlin
Hamlin has new crew chief Chris Gabehart to thank for a career renaissance that's seen him win two of the first seven NASCAR Cup races. Gabehart's pit strategy call at Texas Motor Speedway resulted in Hamlin taking the lead after the last round of green-flag stops; he cruised to victory over Clint Bowyer while teammate Kyle Busch never recovered after smacking the Turn 2 wall. (Busch wound up 10th).
"He told me [Sunday morning] he was optimistic we had a race-winning car. I'll be honest with you, I thought he was full of sh*t," Hamlin said. "He surprises me. He's just doing the right things."
Who's at the Back: Kyle Larson
A tire problem led to a wreck and a last-place finish for one of Chevy's most talented drivers. Early on, it looked like Larson had mastered this 2019 handling package but he's been lost after a penalty nixed his chances to win at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Larson remains without a top-5 finish after seven races this season and has not led since AMS.
What's worse, teammate Kurt Busch has outpaced him in the point standings and on the racetrack with a No. 1 team that didn't even make the playoffs last season with Jamie McMurray. What's going on with Larson at Chip Ganassi Racing?
NASCAR released its 2020 schedules for the Xfinity and Gander Outdoors Truck Series this week. As expected, both series will see their finales move to ISM Raceway beginning next season as the sport realigns its postseason schedule. The Xfinity Series is also adding a race at Martinsville Speedway for the first time since 2006. Each of the sport's lower-tier divisions will also race during the Pocono Cup doubleheader, giving the track four races in 48 hours next June.
Another next-generation NASCAR talent is continuing his move up the ranks. Harrison Burton will be making eight Xfinity Series starts this season with Joe Gibbs Racing beginning this weekend at Bristol Motor Speedway. The 18-year-old full-time Gander Outdoors Truck Series driver has five top-5 finishes so far in just 20 starts with Kyle Busch Motorsports.
Gander Outdoors Truck Series driver Austin Wayne Self has been suspended indefinitely for violating the sport's substance abuse policy. Self had been replaced by Bubba Wallace in the AM Racing No. 22 for the past couple of weeks.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Streak of top-10 starts this season for Denny Hamlin (he qualified 5th for Sunday's Food City 500). Hamlin's average start of 5.1 leads the Cup Series.
Laps led or top-10 finishes for Hendrick Motorsports' Alex Bowman in his first seven Cup races this season.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
Kyle Busch ran 10th at Texas last weekend. That's his worst finish of the season in any one of the sport's top three NASCAR divisions. How can you pick against him in any fantasy format these days? Especially when he's won two of the last three Cup races at Bristol? A 17th-place starting spot also gives you plenty of position differential bonus points in daily fantasy.
Ryan Blaney led 221 laps in the last two Bristol races but has failed to cash in. A wreck not of his making in last year's spring event was followed up by a seventh-place finish in the night race. At some point, Lady Luck will cut Blaney a break and he'll no longer be the only Team Penske driver not to reach Victory Lane in 2019.
Typically, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is the driver you look to for Bristol success. But how about new teammate Ryan Newman? He's got four straight top-15 finishes here and a career average finish of 15.7. While Stenhouse has a special knack for the high banks Newman has arguably more momentum, pulling off a season-best 11th-place finish for Roush Fenway Racing at Texas.
Outside pole sitter William Byron doesn't have the Bristol numbers to back up his outside front row start. So why am I picking him? Crew chief Chad Knaus had Thunder Valley pegged late in his long marriage with Jimmie Johnson. They produced five straight top-11 finishes together, including a 2017 victory when the duo was failing elsewhere. Can he transfer that magic over to Byron this weekend?
Matt DiBenedetto had the best run of his NASCAR career at Bristol a few years back, finishing sixth with a woefully underfunded team in BK Racing that wound up bankrupt. Now driving for Leavine Family Racing, he's set to produce with a No. 95 team that ran 15th here last August with Kasey Kahne.
How about rookie Ryan Preece? The JTG Daugherty Racing driver won the Xfinity Series race at the track last year as part of his springboard up to Cup. He's got no top-tier experience here but as long as he can survive? That often produces a top-20 finish at this treacherous track.
What Vegas Thinks
Kyle Busch is once again the favorite at Thunder Valley. He's got 9/4 odds to win Sunday's race, followed by Brad Keselowski and Kyle Larson at 7/1.
What I Think
Chase Elliott showed his short track strength at Martinsville a few weeks back, nearly taking down Keselowski. I think Hendrick Motorsports breaks through at Bristol for their first win of 2019 with Elliott behind the wheel.
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and the Majority Owner of NASCAR Web site Frontstretch.com. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.
(Top photo courtesy of @NASCAR)