There’s no question that Franklin’s Darrell Waltrip has been, and continues to be, one of the most influential individuals in NASCAR history and that he deserves to be in the sport’s new Hall of Fame.
The only question is, when?
Waltrip is one of 25 nominees for the Hall of Fame’s inaugural class scheduled for induction later this year. The problem is, only five of the 25 will be inducted in the first class. (Personally I think all 25 should go in, but that’s another column for another time.)
Richard Petty and NASCAR founder Bill France Sr. are shoo-ins, and it would be hard to argue against Junior Johnson and Dale Earnhardt. Each in his own way helped NASCAR get where it is today.
An equally strong case can be made for Waltrip.
Waltrip was hitting his peak just as television began to take the sport seriously. No driver could have been a more perfect prime-time personality than D.W., with his debonair style and his silver tongue.
Groomed and glib and with a David Letterman-like sharp wit, Waltrip shattered stock car racing stereotypes. He looked more like a golf pro than a Good Ol’ Boy. He was someone with whom mainstream America could identify.
Waltrip is NASCAR’s Walter Cronkite.
Waltrip won his first championship in the first year that NASCAR held its awards banquet in New York City. Again, nobody was better suited to take center stage at the Waldorf and steer NASCAR from the backwoods to Broadway. It was harmonic convergence at 200 mph — the perfect driver at the perfect time.
France hammered the sport into being; Petty won the most races and drew the most fans; Johnson was a successful driver and car owner who pioneered corporate partnerships; and Earnhardt was the steely-eyed John Wayne of stock car racing.
However, it was Waltrip who was the master of the media — and still is.
In his role as a Fox Sports commentator and Internet columnist, Waltrip is more than a communicator of facts — he is the face and the voice of the sport, a diplomat, an ambassador and a natural-born public relations whiz.
And his driving credentials aren’t bad, either.
During his heyday, Waltrip was cocky and brash, but he didn’t just talk a good game: He won three championships, and his 84 victories tie him with Bobby Allison for third all-time.
Nobody was smoother on and off the track than the driver nicknamed “Jaws.”
Along with Petty, Johnson, Earnhardt and Waltrip, there’s a pack of drivers indisputably deserving of the Hall of Fame: David Pearson, Jeff Gordon, Bobby Allison, Cale Yarborough, Curtis Turner, Fireball Roberts, Rusty Wallace, Lee Petty, Ned Jarrett, Bill Elliott, Tim Flock… the list goes on, and every one is a cinch to make it eventually.
It’s hard to winnow a parade of racing giants down to five, but if NASCAR is stuck on that number, Waltrip deserves to be in that initial roll call.
Larry Woody is a Nashville sports writer who has covered racing since the early 1970s.