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Throwback Thursday Theater: Darrell Waltrip’s Daytona 500 Fuel Mileage Gamble

By David Morgan, Associate Editor

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – NASCAR Hall of Famer Darrell Waltrip found success at tracks of all shapes and sizes throughout his illustrious career, but one race eluded him for years on end – the Daytona 500.

Coming into the 1989 running of the Great American Race, Waltrip was entering his third season with Hendrick Motorsports and had found moderate success, winning three races in the two seasons prior with the organization.

Still, a marquee win at Daytona was missing from his resume and it would take a gamble of immense proportions to finally pull it off.

Fellow Hendrick Motorsports driver Ken Schrader scored the pole for the 200-lap event, with Waltrip starting alongside. When the green flag dropped, it was Waltrip that got the jump over his teammate, leading the first 10 laps of the race, but shortly thereafter Schrader piloted his Chevrolet to the front.

Schrader stayed in the top spot for 114 laps, seemingly able to lead at will and looking like the odds on favorite to take home the trophy. That is until Waltrip and crew chief Jeff Hammond elected to play the fuel mileage game to try and steal the victory away from the No. 25 team.

Making his final pit stop with 53 laps to go, Waltrip settled back in the pack for the final run to the finish, hoping their bet would pay off.

With 10 laps to go, leaders Schrader and Dale Earnhardt had to peel off onto pit road, with their fuel tanks running dry, leaving just Alan Kulwicki and Waltrip as the only two on track that had yet to pit. As the field got to the four laps to go mark, Kulwicki made his appearance on pit road, leaving Waltrip as the last man standing with 10 miles still remaining in the race.

Drafting off of nearly every car he could get close to, Waltrip was milking every ounce of fuel possible out of his No. 17 car to try and stretch it all the way to the drop of the checkered flag.

The ingenious plan worked as he had just enough in the fuel tank to make it to the finish, beating Schrader by 7.64 seconds to finally get the monkey off his back and win the race in his 17th try.

An elated Waltrip jumped out of his car in Victory Lane, shouting, “I won the Daytona 500! I won the Daytona 500! This is the Daytona 500, isn’t it? Don’t tell me it isn’t! Thank God!”

The Owensboro, Kentucky native followed that up with his own version of the Ickey Shuffle, spiking his helmet in an homage to Cincinatti Bengals star Ickey Woods, who made the touchdown dance famous during his playing days in the NFL.

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David Morgan is the Associate Editor for Motorsports Tribune. A 2008 graduate from the University of Mississippi, David has followed NASCAR since the early 90’s and became hooked at an early age after attending his first race at Talladega Superspeedway in 1993. He has traveled across the country since 2012 to cover some of the most prestigious events both IndyCar and NASCAR have to offer, with an aim to only expand on that in the near future.