NASCAR Week at Kentucky Speedway

Mark Story: Waltrip brothers will celebrate family, legacy at Sparta's Sprint Cup debut

On Saturday, tiny Sparta will become the city of brotherly love

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistJuly 6, 2011 

  • Ticket prices

    Sprint Cup race grandstand sold out (standing-room-only and infield tickets were still available as of Tuesday night); Truck race, $30-$40; Nationwide race, $40-$75. Prices increase $5 on race days. Go to KentuckySpeedway.com or call 1-888-652-7223 to order.

When they were growing up, Darrell Waltrip and his little brother, Michael, were not especially close. How could they be? Darrell was 16 when Michael was born.

By the time the younger Waltrip was entering school, DW was long out of the house and on the road to establishing himself as first a regular and then a star driver at NASCAR's highest level.

"My brother was my hero," Michael Waltrip said. "He was somebody doing what I wanted to do and doing it crazy good."

Yet it was not until Darrell hung up his driving gloves after the 2000 season and became Fox Sports' top NASCAR race analyst that the relationship between the Waltrips deepened as brothers.

"After he quit driving, Darrell just had more time," Michael said. "We've gotten closer (since then). We have a really good relationship now."

This Saturday, when NASCAR Sprint Cup Series racing at long last comes to Kentucky Speedway, the Quaker State 400 will serve as something of a Waltrip brothers reunion for the Owensboro natives.

Michael, 48, and semiretired from full-time NASCAR driving, is the lone Kentuckian entered as a driver in the Cup race. "It feels great," Waltrip said of the chance to run a Cup Series event in his home state. "And if it wasn't special enough, we're running a paint scheme that will honor my brother."

The No. 15 Aaron's Toyota Michael will attempt to qualify on speed for the race will bear a visual tribute to his older brother that honors Darrell for being a member of the third class elected to the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

Darrell, 64, will be in Sparta, too. The three-time Cup series champion is slated to drive Kentucky first lady Jane Beshear in a pre-race ceremony in a pink car designed to promote breast cancer awareness.

"I might not be the show, but I am part of the show," Darrell said.

As a onetime consultant to the original owners of Kentucky Speedway, Darrell has long been part of the drive to bring the Cup Series to the commonwealth. When the Speedway opened in 2000, "I thought we'd have a Cup race in three, four years," he said. "I never dreamed it would take this long."

Ol' DW will be well-honored this weekend in his home state. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is running a retro-Mountain Dew paint scheme similar to what Waltrip had on his car during two of his three Cup-championship seasons (in 1981 and '82). Meanwhile, Thursday at 3 p.m., the cable channel Speed is debuting the documentary Darrell Waltrip: Hometown Hero.

Still, no tribute this weekend to the greatest NASCAR driver ever produced in Kentucky will be as heartfelt as the one from his younger brother.

"You look back at the 1970s and '80s, DW was The Man. He was dominating the sport," Michael said. "But NASCAR as a sport really took off in (popularity in) the 1990s and the 2000s. I'm not sure, now, people really understand how good he was."

He was good. Darrell Waltrip won three Cup Series championships (1985 was the third), the 1989 Daytona 500 and 84 career Cup races. From 1977 through 1984, he won at least five races in every Cup season.

By the time Michael was trying to establish his own racing career, Darrell said, "I was so focused on my own deal, I really didn't pay that much attention to what he was doing. I should have done more" to help him.

It's easy to let the glow of Darrell's luminous achievements obscure what Michael has done. In retrospect, the guy who ran 462 Cup races before winning his first one in the star-crossed 2001 Daytona 500 has a pretty good résumé of his own.

Included are four career Cup victories, two wins in the Daytona 500 (2003 was the other) and one rather unique historical distinction.

When Michael won the season-opening truck race in Daytona this year, it not only meant he had victories in all three (Cup, Nationwide, trucks) of NASCAR's national touring series. It meant he and Mark Martin are the only two drivers in history to have won at least one race in a NASCAR national series in four decades.

"That's a pretty cool deal," Michael Waltrip said. "I'm kind of proud of that."

This weekend, the two brothers from Owensboro who have long given the commonwealth a presence at the highest levels of NASCAR are using the debut of Sprint Cup racing at Kentucky Speedway to celebrate their family's legacy.

Says Michael: "We've got a lot of friends from Owensboro coming up. It will definitely be a celebration of our family, of Darrell and what he's done in NASCAR."

Adds Darrell: "I appreciate what Michael is doing (with the paint scheme). I know he's got to qualify, but he's been doing things to prepare for this race. I think he might run better than a lot of people think."

A fast car and a strong run would be the perfect way to top off a Waltrip brothers reunion.

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