September 3, 2017
In 1989, everything was going right for Darrell Waltrip. He finally won the Daytona 500, and after Rusty Wallace spun him out to win the All-Star Race, fans finally started to pull for DW. He recently became a father, and once again, 1989 saw him battling for a championship.
By winning Daytona and the Coca-Cola 600 Darrell also was eligible that year to win the Winston Million at the Southern 500, a one million dollar bonus if a driver could win three of the sport’s four biggest races. After it was first offered in 1985, Bill Elliott was the only driver to claim the prize. Now four years later, Waltrip entered the 1989 Southern 500 as the second driver to have a chance of winning the prize.
One week prior to the Southern 500, Waltrip won for the fifth time of the season. With a dominating win in the night race at Bristol, Darrell put himself in a good position to carry momentum over in his attempt at winning the Winston Million.
“I’ve said all along that mental preparation will be the key in that race and this win will certainly help us,” Waltrip said from Bristol’s victory lane. “There’s a lot of money there next week and I’d like to be able to get it.” A million dollar bonus was a big deal in 1989; for winning the Daytona 500, Waltrip only got $185,000. Adding to that, Darrell had never won the prestigious Southern 500. This scenario created a perfect storm of excitement and attention as Waltrip entered the Labor Day Classic.
While Darrell could win a million dollars on Sunday, there was another large prize he could get as a result of qualifying first. At the time, Unocal offered a cash bonus for any driver who could win the race from the pole. $7,600 was added to the bonus for each race it wasn’t claimed, and since no one had won from the pole since March, the bonus was now $144,400. If Darrell won the Southern 500 from the pole, he would get an astounding $1,144,400 in bonus money in addition to the winner’s purse of about $70,000.
When qualifying was held on the Thursday prior to the race, Waltrip couldn’t quite run fast enough to be eligible for the Unocal money. While Alan Kulwicki won the pole, Waltrip qualified ninth. The speed was pretty good, and Darrell felt it gave him a good chance to win his first Southern 500.
“We just wanted to start up front where we could see everybody,” Waltrip said. “It’s not too bad and I’m pretty tickled with our run. We’ll be tough on Sunday, you can count on it.”
For the man known as Jaws, one of the best parts of the week was the media attention he got, something he loved. “This may be the most fun I ever have in racing, whether I win or lose,” Waltrip said. “It won’t ever be any better than this. Let’s roll the dice.”
Equally as memorable as Darrell’s Daytona 500 win that year was when Rusty Wallace spun him with two laps to go to win the All-Star Race. That controversy was still fresh on Darrell’s mind going into Darlington.
“I woke up in a cold sweat one night dreaming I had come down and there was the white flag and I had to get by Rusty to win the million dollars. I hit him and I spun him out and I tried to convince everybody it was an accident. And nobody would believe me. I just pray that something like that doesn’t happen.”
When the green flag waved to begin the Southern 500, it was clear that it wasn’t going to be Darrell’s day. With an ill-handling car, Darrell ran just outside of the top-ten for the first half of the race. After being lapped around halfway, Darrell made a mistake trying to get his lap back when leader Harry Gant scraped the wall.
“We got a little behind and I tried to capitalize on Harry Gant’s misfortune,” Waltrip said post-race. “He got in the wall down there in turn two and I thought that maybe if I could get around him and get back in the lead lap that I’d be back in the race.”
“I just tried too hard at that point. I just got the car in the wall one time and like a big dummy that wasn’t enough. I got the car in the wall again and that was the end of it.”
“After Darrell hit the wall the second time it bent the rear housing and everything kind of went downhill after that,” crew chief Jeff Hammond said.
“When the million slipped away,” Waltrip recalled, “it was like someone turned out the lights for a little while. Then they all came back on and we got back to business.” Darrell finished a disappointing 22nd, eight laps behind winner Dale Earnhardt. At the end of the year, Waltrip finished fourth in points and won the Most Popular Driver Award.
After Darrell’s frustrating effort to win the Winston Million and Southern 500, perhaps it’s quite ironic that his 84th and final Cup win came three years later in the Southern 500, playing the spoiler role and denying Davey Allison his own chance at capturing the Winston Million.
*”Kulwicki to Start on the Pole.” Herald Journal. September 1, 1989.
*”Waltrip is Having the Time of His Life.” Herald Journal. September 2, 1989.
*”Waltrip Likes His Chances.” Herald Journal. August 28, 1989.
*”Waltrip’s Million Goes Up in Smoke of his Tires” Herald Journal. September 4, 1989.