Darrell Waltrip starts victory lap on his 2nd NASCAR career

BRISTOL, Tenn. — In the shadows of the Darrell Waltrip Grandstands, ol' DW officially launched the second victory lap of his second NASCAR career.

The Fox Sports analyst kicked off his retirement tour Friday at Bristol Motor Speedway, where Waltrip is a 12-time winner and an entire grandstand is named for the Hall of Fame driver.

Waltrip was Fox Sports' first hire when the network launched its NASCAR coverage in 2001, and 19 years later he said leaving the broadcast booth is far more difficult than it was giving up racing.

"You know, I thought when I retired from driving, I don't know, I always thought that was my identity, the car, the uniform, being at the racetrack. Being in the race. I always thought that was my identity," Waltrip said. "That was just my platform. This is the hardest thing. I'm older, so it was hard."

Waltrip, who once won seven consecutive races at the bullring from 1981 through 1984, was presented with the gladiator-style sword presently awarded Bristol winners and asked to wave the green flag at the start of Sunday's race.

Fox Sports said it will have Waltrip wired so he can also open the event with his signature "Boogity! Boogity! Boogity! Let's go racing, boys" call.

His final race will be June 23 at Sonoma Raceway when Fox Sports concludes its portion of the NASCAR television schedule.

He was joined at a news conference by almost every member of the Fox Sports team, which was built around him when he climbed out of his race car for good at the end of the 2000 season. Waltrip won 84 races, tied for fourth on NASCAR's all-time win list, and three Cup championships.

A fearless Kentucky boy who first showed up on the NASCAR scene in 1972 at Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama, Waltrip aggravated his competitors by beating them on the track and then running his mouth out of the car.

Rivals nicknamed him "Jaws" and Waltrip was at the forefront of parlaying his personality and fame into a lucrative side hustle of appearances, celebrity endorsing and, finally, the broadcast booth.

"This is my home for 60 years of my 72. I was holding onto the steering wheel for 30 years, I grabbed a microphone and I held onto a microphone for another 19 years," he said.

"You get what you give, and I gave a lot, but I got a whole lot more in return. I devoted my time, my energy, my effort, my passion for this sport and it rewarded me time and time again, not just with trophies and the success on the track, but with friends and people that I'll never forget."

Waltrip said he first considered retiring after the 2017 season, two years after fellow Hall of Famer Jeff Gordon joined Waltrip and Mike Joy in the booth. Gordon was fresh out of the car and armed with recent knowledge that Waltrip couldn't possibly possess so far removed from an active role in the garage. He said he knew before the start of the season that this year would be his last in the booth.

Bristol was chosen as site for Friday's formal announcement because of his success at the track and his popularity in Tennessee, where Waltrip settled in Franklin and raised his family. His call of the 2001 Daytona 500, the first in Fox Sports' coverage, is an iconic moment in the sport because he excitedly cheered younger brother, Michael, to his first career victory at virtually the same time as Dale Earnhardt's fatal crash on the final lap.

Waltrip, battling conflicting emotions of tearful joy for his brother and concern for his longtime rival, captured the confusion of one of NASCAR's seminal moments.

"Darrell has been the heart and soul of the Fox NASCAR booth since day one," said Fox Sports CEO and executive producer Eric Shanks. "DW's unmatched charisma and passion helped Fox Sports build its fan base when we first arrived at Daytona in 2001, and he has been the cornerstone of our NASCAR coverage ever since."

Waltrip's broadcasting style isn't for everyone and many openly wondered if he'd overstayed his time in the booth. His homespun mannerism, folky catchphrases and tendency to speak over both Joy and Gordon rub some the wrong way. Amid speculation about his plans and critiques of his work, there was an outpouring of support from his fellow broadcasters and passionate longtime fans.

"There have been a lot of stories written and aired on radio and TV, a lot good and some that wasn't so good, but that's OK because what's happened in the last few days is the legion of fans of the show from the beginning have all come forward and all made their well-wishes known, and that's been gratifying for all of us to see," Joy said. "And Bristol is the right place to make this announcement because this is Darrell's house."

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More AP auto racing: https://apnews.com/apf-AutoRacing

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