By: Zach Sturniolo (Contributing Journalist for ’50 Years of The Tricky Triangle.’) (May 28, 2021)
Darrell Waltrip’s name sits among elite company in the history of Pocono Raceway.
A three-time NASCAR Cup Series champion, Waltrip collected four wins, 12 top fives and 20 top 10s around the Tricky Triangle, tying him for fourth in all-time Pocono wins with Rusty Wallace and Tim Richmond. Coupled with his illustrious broadcasting career, Waltrip spent 45 consecutive years heading to Long Pond and established a lasting connection to the Mattioli family.
Waltrip, a Tennessee native, grew up running short tracks around the southeast. Making his maiden voyage to Pocono Raceway in the mid-1970s made a significant impression on the NASCAR Hall of Famer.
“I think that track was needed,” Waltrip said. “It was in a part of the country where we didn’t have a lot of races. We didn’t have Watkins Glen or New Hampshire or some of the tracks that are in that area now. And that track was really, really needed for the growth of NASCAR.
“I think that was one of the reasons why Bill France and Bill France Jr. both thought so much of the Mattiolis because they hung in there through some tough times, and made that track work at a time when we really needed them more than they needed us. It worked out really well for everybody.”
That also meant it worked out well for Waltrip. An 84-race winner in the Cup Series, Waltrip needed just four Pocono starts to find victory lane for the first time in 1978.
“I had a pretty good knack for flat racetracks […],” he said. “And I enjoyed Pocono because you had a really, really long straightaways. And you’ve got the front straightaway that goes into that pretty fast first turn, got a little banking to it. You get through there pretty good. You go across the tunnel, little short chute into the third turn, it leads out on the front straightaway.
“The track was different. The turns were all different. The straightaways were long. The straightaways were fast. It took a lot of finesse, and that was kind of my forte. So I kind of used my road course experience, my short track experience and my superspeedway experience, and it worked out pretty well at Pocono.”
His second win came in 1981 when driving for NASCAR legend Junior Johnson. Waltrip’s race was fairly uneventful, leading 115 of 200 laps from the pole en route to his victory. And yet Waltrip’s No. 11 Buick wasn’t the first car into victory lane that afternoon. Instead, an insistent Cale Yarborough found his way there instead, even though Yarborough finished fifth.
“Cale left Junior’s operation and went down to M.C. Anderson [for the 1981 season],” Waltrip recalled. “And when the checkered flag waved, Cale was right in front of me, but Cale was on the tail end of the lead lap. If I’d have passed him, he’d have been a lap down. But we come off the corner, they wave the checkered flag and Cale says, ‘I won the race.’ He drives his car into victory circle and he won’t come out!
“Everybody’s trying to tell him, ‘Cale, you didn’t win this race.’ [Cale says], ‘Yes, sir, buddy! This is my race; I won this race.’ He knew he didn’t win it. But nonetheless, finally push came to shove and they said, ‘Cale, either pull the car out, or we’re gonna get a wrecker and tow it out.’ So he finally yielded and he pulled the car out and I pulled in. […]
“I think if it had been anybody else other than me and the 11 car, Cale might have yielded a little quicker, but he fought hard and he fought long. But they finally said pull it out or we’re gonna tow it out, so he pulled it out, and I pulled in.”
The next time Waltrip wound up in Pocono’s victory lane was a decade later, winning the 1991 Champion Spark Plug 500 in the self-owned No. 17 Chevrolet in the inaugural season of Darrell Waltrip Motorsports. Waltrip used his past experience both on and off the track to hunt down Dale Earnhardt for the lead with 18 laps to go, claiming the second win for DWM.
“I think what a lot of people maybe don’t realize or never thought about is it takes one kind of setup to go fast for a lap or two. It takes a totally different set up to go that fast for 500 miles,” Waltrip said. “And I really prided myself in knowing what I needed in my car, for my car to be good in the race, not just for one lap or two laps, 10 laps, but for 50 miles, 100 miles and 500 miles at the end of the day. We had a pretty nice setup that we had developed for that track. It worked when I drove for Junior; it worked when I drove for myself.”
With another victory in 1992, Waltrip’s legacy at Pocono was already cemented. And as the years went by, so too went Waltrip’s peak. From 1974 through 1994, Waltrip scored at least 10 top 10s per season. But suddenly, the success stopped. The winning stopped.
“I think one of the hardest things that I had to deal with was the last two or three years of my career,” Waltrip said. “I had been on top. I was probably one of the most dominant drivers in the sport from the late 70s to the early 90s. And then all of a sudden, I didn’t just slide down the other side slowly. I fell. I mean, I went to the top and then I fell. I didn’t get the results that I wanted. I had my own team. And it was shocking. I was spending all the money I had. And that wasn’t enough.”
Then came 1998, when Steve Park was injured while driving the No. 1 Chevrolet for Dale Earnhardt Incorporated. Earnhardt phoned a friend – Waltrip – and plugged him into the car.
That 13-race stint rejuvenated Waltrip’s career, culminating in a sixth-place finish in the Pocono 500 – the final top 10 of Waltrip’s illustrious career. Waltrip led 10 laps that day thanks in part to a great strategy call by crew chief Phillipe Lopez.
“That day was so, so special,” Waltrip said. “To be able to lead that race late, have a chance at winning late, it was the best. Me and Phillipe Lopez came up with a strategy. It worked almost to perfection. Not quite. Almost. But to walk out there that day with a top 10 finish driving for Dale, one of my big rivals at a track that I loved, that really put a lot of pep in my step. […]
“It made me feel better. I don’t know if the fans – maybe they realized or maybe they didn’t care. Or maybe it was too late for me to recover from some of the disasters I had in my career. But it made me feel better. It made me know that you give me the right car with the right people, and I could still get the job done. And that was really what was important to me.”
With his Pocono success came a long and meaningful friendship with track founders Drs. Joe and Rose Mattioli. That relationship carried into the early 2000s, when Waltrip and Jerry Carroll wanted to bring the NASCAR Cup Series to Kentucky Speedway.
That resulted in Carroll making a visit to Pocono to speak with Doc Mattioli, figuring out what all a racetrack needed, and potentially working an agreement to shift one of Pocono’s dates to Kentucky since the Tricky Triangle’s two races were scheduled so tightly together. The trip didn’t exactly go as planned, though.
“Doc’s showing him around the facility, and of course, we’re building a brand new racetrack so everything has to be perfect,” Waltrip said. “And Doc takes him into a warehouse up there and there were 50 used toilets. Fifty used commodes. And Doc showed him he said, ‘Look, we’re going to install all these around the track. What do you think?’
“He was so proud of those 50 used commodes and here Jerry Carroll is trying to work a deal with the Mattiolis to get one of their races to move to Kentucky, and Doc wants to show him the 50 used commodes that he had bought at some auction somewhere that he was going to install at the racetrack.”
In the end, Pocono kept its dates, and Waltrip kept his close friendship with the Mattiolis.
“How or why they ever thought they could promote a race or why they thought they would be good promoters, I’m not sure. But they were,” Waltrip said. “People loved them. Rose and Doc, they loved them. And I think that’s what made the track successful was those relationships – not just with Bill France, but with all the drivers and the competitors and mostly the fans that go there. It’s a funny place. You go there and that infield is packed, and that’s what you want. And the grandstands are packed. […]
“It took people like Doc and Rose to make it work, and they were able to do it.”
To see more content from our ’50 Years of The Tricky Triangle’ please visit: poconoraceway.com/50