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Caraviello: Waltrip's polarizing second career shouldn't eclipse his spectacular first

June 20, 2011, David Caraviello,

Waltrip's polarizing second career shouldn't eclipse his spectacular first

Cale Yarborough may have been Darrell Waltrip's fiercest rival, but he also provided his adversary perhaps the best piece of career advice. Late in the 1980 season, Yarborough approached Waltrip -- whom the three-time champion had nicknamed "Jaws" because of his outspoken nature -- and let him in on a little secret: He was leaving Junior Johnson's powerhouse race team at the end of the year. He recommended that Waltrip go talk to Johnson about getting into the seat next.

"He was going to leave Junior's, and nobody even knew it," Waltrip remembered. "He said, 'I'm telling you something nobody knows. Junior likes you, and he wants you to drive his car. You need to go talk to him.' That was the best advice anybody ever gave me, because it led to a lot of wins and three championships."

Class of 2012

Cale Yarborough, Darrell Waltrip, Dale Inman, Richie Evans and Glen Wood honored with enshrinement.

Video highlights

Relive the moments as Brian France reveals the third five voted to the Hall of Fame.

The move to Johnson's team helped make Waltrip's career, setting him on a path that would eventually net not only those three championships but also 84 victories at NASCAR's highest level, good enough to tie for third all-time. Those totals should blink in bright neon to remind everyone of the driver Waltrip once was, someone who shouldn't have had to wait quite this long to earn election into NASCAR's Hall of Fame, and someone who shouldn't have to justify his presence now that his enshrinement exhibit and membership jacket are being prepared.

After being snubbed last year, Waltrip got in easily this time around, earning mention on more than 80 percent of ballots cast by the 54 members of the selection committee. But in the days since, it's become clear that there's something about Waltrip that rankles some people, to the point where they think even a driver with such glittering credentials needs to wait a little while longer before enshrinement. He didn't even crack the top three in the fan voting -- those top spots went to Richard Childress, Benny Parsons and Fireball Roberts -- which makes you wonder if some fans need either a history lesson or a refresher course in how to think objectively.

Because anyone who didn't think Waltrip deserved to get into the Hall of Fame on Tuesday has either been breathing too many gas fumes or has taken an impact wrench to the head. Goodness, with his victory and championship totals, it wasn't unthinkable to fathom that he might have been part of the inaugural class two years ago. Denying him last year, when other drivers with fewer career victories and championships were let ahead of him, smacked of something personal. No wonder he was almost sick to his stomach before the 2012 class was unveiled this week, and ran up to hug and kiss NASCAR chairman Brian France once his name was finally called.

"When you don't get in the first go-round, that's understandable," Waltrip told reporters afterward. "And then the second go-round comes along and you go, I don't know, I felt pretty good about that one. And then you get to this point, and you start wondering -- maybe there's something. Maybe there's something that's going to keep me from getting in for a while. And it was that talk about the pioneers and the guys who built the sport early on, and I understood that. I guess I could have accepted that if all the guys from that same era as I, if none of us got in. That would be one thing, but if you start picking and choosing, then that made me a little bit nervous."

It seemed clear last year the voting became too political, with too many electors voting for candidates they liked and against those they didn't, regardless of what the numbers said. Because if you just look at numbers -- and in something like this, your performance in the arena is what counts most -- Waltrip should have been a shoo-in, and instead he received an absurd 40 percent of the vote. That oversight was corrected this year, when the voters finally got the message and elected a quintet with an impressive 23 NASCAR championships between them. There were no more snubs. Finally, Hall of Fame election day became more about who got in than who was left out.

And yet, in some corners, Waltrip still fights the battle to belong, no matter that his career numbers are better than only a select few others, no matter that his work as a television broadcaster has made him the face of the sport. Social media posts and comments on this very website are awash in diatribes from fans who simply refuse to believe that Waltrip belongs in the Hall. It's crazy talk, plain and simple. If Waltrip isn't one of the first 15 people enshrined in the NASCAR Hall of Fame, then there's no need for one to begin with. But Waltrip has become so proficient at his second career, so polarizing in front of the cameras, that his television work has evidently left some blind to how spectacular his first career really was.

Because it was spectacular. Waltrip's 1981 and '82 seasons, when he won a dozen races in each campaign and beat Bobby Allison (who preceded him by one year into the Hall of Fame) for the championship in both cases, were as good as any driver has enjoyed in the modern era. In 1981 he started 31 races, and finished in the top 10 in 25 of them. He showed tremendous longevity, bridging the gap between Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt Jr., and at one point finishing in the top eight in final points for 15 consecutive seasons. He won his third championship in 1985 over Bill Elliott, is convinced he would have added another had Johnson not changed manufacturers for the 1983 season, and may very well have finished with five had he not hit the wall at Darlington with the points lead late in 1979.

Waltrip lost that title to Petty by 11 points. So yes, he's done plenty to earn his place on the short list of the best ever to wheel a stock car. Yes, it's been a while since his last truly competitive season (1994), and he might have hung on a little too long at the end, but neither of those should mitigate what he accomplished at his peak. But some fans have very short memories, ones that stretch back only to Waltrip's most recent television appearance, and something he said that probably ticked them off. And suddenly Waltrip becomes less a legendary former driver and more a television personality, and angry viewers think -- no way a guy like this belongs in the Hall of Fame.

Yes, he does. As he did behind the wheel of Johnson's No. 11 car, Waltrip is only doing his job, and doing it well. Broadcasters like Waltrip -- or Dick Vitale in basketball, John Madden in football, or Johnny Miller in golf -- are paid to be colorful, to be outspoken, to occasionally ruffle feathers or get under somebody's skin. Mike Joy is the straight man in that booth, not DW. As is the case with sports columnists, broadcast analysts like Waltrip aren't doing their job if they're universally beloved. If he's challenging your beliefs or criticizing your favorite driver, it's because that's what he's supposed to do. And his breadth of experience, born of all those races and victories and championships, gives him the authority to do it.

But none of that -- absolutely none of that -- has to do with his on-track exploits, which is why he is so deserving of a place in the Hall of Fame. People can be so fickle. They want outspoken, colorful characters in this sport, and then lambast the one they see on television every week. They vote Ned Jarrett into the Hall last year partly because of his broadcast work, ignoring the fact that it was Waltrip's presence before the camera that helped NASCAR reach some of its greatest heights. They tell Waltrip that he's not old enough to be in the Hall of Fame, or that there are others more worthy, when he meets all election criteria and has better career numbers than just about any other eligible candidate.

"In this sport, all we talk about is performance," Waltrip said. "But then when you get to something like this, it's not so much just about performance. It's about personality and contributions and so many other things that have come into play that you didn't consider. When they were talking about a Hall of Fame, I thought, hey, I've got the third most wins, I ought to be the third guy in. I was only thinking from a driver's perspective. That's the only way I've ever thought. Everything I ever do, TV, talking to [the media], whatever, I think as a driver. ... But it turned out to be a lot more than that."

But get this -- Waltrip has the personality, more than many of his contemporaries combined. He makes contributions every week on television, beating the drum for the sport he loves. And then there are those career performance numbers, which should have been enough to get him into the Hall of Fame had he disappeared into a cornfield after the final race of the 2000 season. Few drivers offer a more complete package of what it means to be enshrined among NASCAR's greatest. So go ahead, argue with 'ol DW next time he comes on the television screen. But at the same time, have some respect for what he accomplished, and understand that he's completely worthy of his place in the Hall of Fame.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.