FRANKLIN, Tenn. (WZTV) — The countdown to the “Great American Race” is on.
This year marks the 30-year anniversary of legendary NASCAR driver Darrell Waltrip’s Daytona 500 win.
For Waltrip, who lives in Franklin, the Daytona 500 eluded him for most of his career. Finally, in 1989, the numbers were in his favor, more specifically, the number 17.
"When we sat down on Saturday before the race and the purse was $1.7 million,” Waltrip recounts. “I had car 17 and we qualified, we had pit #17. My name has 17 letters in it. It kept going on, there was one thing after another. My Crew Chief Jeff Hammon said, ‘what do you think that means.’ And I said, ‘it means were going to finish first or 17th. I'm just not sure which one.’"
Waltrip's first and only Daytona win was a calculated risk. He said he won many races on fuel mileage and used that approach in 1989.
"We decided when we went back to green with 55 to go that we were going to go for it,” Waltrip said. “We're going to try and stretch the fuel and see if we could make it or not because we knew no one else would."
However, with five miles left, Waltrip began to panic.
"I'm screaming at Hammond, ‘we can't make it I don't think we're going to be able to do this... we're going to run out of fuel,’” Waltrip said. “He said, ‘shut up and drive the car. If we run out of fuel, then we run out of fuel. There's nothing we can do about it now. We are committed.’"
That's when Waltrip's wife Stevie, who kept all his fuel mileage, stepped in.
"She grabbed Jeff when we were talking about if we were going to make it or if we were going to go for it or not,” Waltrip said. “She said, ‘Jeff, we have figured out how to lose this race a million times, let's do something different and try to win it. Let's go for it.’"
The plan worked and Waltrip crossed the Daytona 500 finish line with only ounces of fuel to spare.
This year marks the 30th anniversary of Waltrip's Daytona win. That's something to celebrate.
The Daytona 500 airs on FOX affiliated stations Sunday at 1:30 p.m.