The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series emerges from a week off to start its summer stretch deep in the heart of wine country. 2.52-mile Sonoma Raceway sits within the beautiful backdrop of Napa Valley in northern California, an hour north of San Francisco. The winding road course offers its fair share of on-track storylines, a rare opportunity to produce an upset winner in a season dominated by a select few.
But it's also a picture-perfect place to offer a toast to one of NASCAR's most influential personalities: Darrell Waltrip. Waltrip will hang up the mic after this weekend, one final race from the FOX broadcast booth putting an exclamation point on a racing career that spans parts of five different decades.
In total, the 72-year-old Waltrip was either a driver or analyst from the NASCAR broadcast booth for over 47 years. It's the type of longevity and impact we rarely see from any athlete, a double dip of excellence with two completely separate skill sets. The closest comparison now is what Tony Romo has mastered over at CBS Sports, the NFL's hottest young analyst after serving as the Dallas Cowboys quarterback for over a decade.
But Romo, for all his brilliance on the field, never won a Super Bowl. Waltrip's driving career came with three NASCAR Cup championships: 1981, '82 and '85. His 84 career wins rank tied for fourth all-time and include the sport's biggest race, the 1989 Daytona 500. Waltrip even has two NASCAR Most Popular Driver Awards to show for a man who became as likable as he was successful.
Some of that goodwill has faded a bit in recent years as Waltrip may have overstayed his welcome a bit in the broadcast booth. (It's ironic as he did so in his driving career, too; Waltrip retired in 2000 after eight straight winless seasons). But his 19-year run at FOX, beginning in 2001 also coincided with the sport's explosive national growth. The first Cup race he called will always be his most memorable; cheering brother Michael to his first career victory in the 2001 Daytona 500 mere seconds after Dale Earnhardt's tragic accident over in turn 3.
Listening to that call reminds you how Waltrip was once far more than a "boogity, boogity, boogity" relic that falls out of touch with the sport's new push to bring back millennials. He was perhaps the sport's most respected voice in the weeks after Earnhardt's death, helping patch NASCAR nation back together as they grieved the loss of an icon. His understanding of what makes racing tick helped FOX become the top-rated weekly broadcast by a country mile for well over a decade.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon, both major names in their own right, will try and replicate Waltrip's success in the coming years. Both appear set for long, successful careers in the booth after transitioning off the track. But to make it 48 years combined? They’ll have their work cut out for them in this dog-eat-dog television world where no one stays on top for long.
So cheers to Waltrip and his near half-century impact on a sport that he's seen rise, fall, and hopefully rise again. No matter how you feel about his broadcasting now, appreciate the accomplishment of a man who rose to the top not once, but twice.
It’s a rare feat, the longevity of which we may not see again anytime soon.
Toyota/Save Mart 350
Time: 3 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Track: Sonoma Raceway (Sonoma, Calif.)
Radio: PRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who's at the Front: 2018 Success Stories
For all that’s changed with NASCAR's new handling package, the cream has still risen straight to the top. Six of the sport's eight finalists from last year's postseason occupy the top eight spots in the 2019 standings. The list includes 2018 Cup champ Joey Logano, Martin Truex Jr., Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Chase Elliott, and Kurt Busch. Only Clint Bowyer and Aric Almirola are missing from the list and they’re not far behind, either; the drivers sit 11th and 12th, respectively, in the championship chase.
As for the two new drivers on the 2019 list? Brad Keselowski won three times in 2018 and most felt he was eliminated early from the playoffs. It's no surprise he's one of the front-runners this season. And Denny Hamlin has a new crew chief and appears rejuvenated after a surprise elimination in the Round of 16 last year. Experience, it seems, is making its way to the top of the NASCAR ticket once again.
Who's at the Back: Jimmie Johnson
This Johnson missing the postseason storyline is about to get a little more serious. The seven-time Cup Series champion remains in a struggle to stay above the cutline after a long list of ho-hum performances in May and June. He hasn't had a top-5 finish since Texas in April and has led just four laps over the last eight races.
A new crew chief in Kevin Meendering and an uptick in performance by Hendrick Motorsports overall hasn't stopped the bleeding. He sits 16th in points, a mere three markers ahead of Ryan Newman with 11 races left to secure a spot.
Darrell Waltrip's retirement has spawned a number of exciting paint schemes honoring the driver’s career in the sport. From David Ragan's tribute to Matt DiBenedetto's 1972 replica of Waltrip's first Cup ride, teams are coming together to pay their respects. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.'s scheme will be the most memorable for younger race fans, decked out in the Western Auto style No. 17 colors Waltrip carried for much of the 1990s.
Ross Chastain and Niece Motorsports are still struggling over the loss of their NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series appeal this week. A potential playoff-clinching Iowa victory was taken away when series officials found the truck to be too low in post-race inspection. That handed the victory to Brett Moffitt and demoted Chastain to a last-place finish, the first time in 20 years NASCAR's taken a win away. Moffitt wound up winning the race despite not leading a single lap.
An appeals board this week ruled in favor of NASCAR, infuriating Niece and keeping Chastain out of the postseason, at least for now. "Although our team disagrees with the decision, we have exhausted our options for now and must move on," Niece said. "Our sights will remain set on the obstacle in front of us – which is making the playoffs."
Sonoma Raceway itself has a new look for NASCAR this week as the racetrack is once again using its carousel. The full, 11-turn road course hasn't been used for the Cup Series since 1997; instead, a shortened 1.99-mile version was in effect that made navigation far easier for drivers that run left and right-turn tracks a handful of times per year. Extending the course back to 2.52 miles has shortened the race back down to 90 laps, tied with Watkins Glen for fewest on the Cup Series schedule.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Drivers within 60 points of Johnson for the final Cup Series playoff spot: Newman, Erik Jones, Paul Menard, Stenhouse, and Austin Dillon.
Drivers that have won a race through 15 events on the NASCAR schedule, the fewest during the sport's postseason era.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
It's easy to pick Kyle Busch at the top of any fantasy roster this season. His four Cup Series wins on road courses make him a solid selection; a dozen wins overall in NASCAR's top three series are hard to ignore. But I'd go a different route and pair yourself with a veteran hungry to win this season: Kevin Harvick.
Two years ago, in 2017 Harvick had a similar frustrating start with Stewart-Haas Racing's transition to Ford. But a win at Sonoma helped cure what ailed them, part of a summer-to-fall surge that left them back inside NASCAR's Championship 4. With four straight top-6 finishes at this track, Harvick is primed and ready to win once again.
A nice fallback would be Martin Truex Jr., strong in practice and the race’s defending champion. But Truex is wildly inconsistent at this place, scoring two finishes of 36th or worse in his last four starts out in wine country. There are more reliable options.
Daniel Suarez is not the first name that comes to mind when you think of Sonoma Raceway. He's got just a 15.5 average finish there over his only two starts at the track. But the Mexican-born driver has a stellar track record over at Watkins Glen, posting two top-5 finishes and has been surging as of late with Stewart-Haas Racing. A fourth-place performance at Michigan could lead to some momentum that carries over with a career-best result Sunday out in California.
Jimmie Johnson needs to get back on the right track and Sonoma, where driver skill is paramount, provides that opportunity. In the last 11 Sonoma events, no matter the circumstances or equipment heading in Johnson has finished no worse than 15th. It’s the type of reliability you want from a mid-level driver on your roster.
Matt DiBenedetto knows Sonoma is one of his few chances left to score an upset. A top-5 runner in practice, his best career finish on the road course is 17th but a new layout and new team offer new opportunities to improve. The No. 95 Leavine Family Racing program has been a top-20 road course car with former driver Michael McDowell and could prove to be a dark horse here.
Chris Buescher is on the verge of graduating from this category after a series of strong runs throughout the spring. A career-best run of 12th at Sonoma last time out is promising for a JTG Daugherty Racing group that puts a lot of effort into the road course events. You shouldn’t ignore that extra focus just because former teammate AJ Allmendinger left the program.
What Vegas Thinks
Kevin Harvick holds the edge on Sonoma odds, sitting as a 7/2 favorite. Martin Truex Jr. is next at 17/4 followed by Chase Elliott at 11/2. For once, Kyle Busch has been knocked into a tie for fourth with Clint Bowyer at 6/1.
What I Think
It’s time for Stewart-Haas Racing to lose their goose egg after spending much of the year chasing Team Penske at Ford. I'm going with Kevin Harvick to break through for his first victory of 2019 and second in three years here.
— 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 firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.
(Top photo courtesy of @NASCAR)