HAMPTON, Ga. -- Once the most hated man in NASCAR, Darrell Waltrip ends his long career as one of its most beloved drivers.
He spent his early years in stock cars listening to boos from fans and demeaning comments from other drivers. Almost 29 years later, he heads to the Fox broadcast booth as a Winston Cup favorite.
''You bet I'd rather be loved than hated,'' Waltrip said as he prepared for the season-ending NAPA 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
He should be well prepared to be a TV analyst.
Longtime racing great Cale Yarborough nicknamed Waltrip ''Jaws'' after listening to him jabber on about everything that was wrong with NASCAR's rules and attitudes -- and after trading paint with the brash youngster many times.
''The man could flat talk,'' Yarborough said, shaking his head. ''I guess what really made a lot of people mad was that he talked and talked and he backed it up on the racetrack. He sure wasn't shy about anything.''
The 53-year-old Waltrip admits he was a little too wild and a real hell-raiser as a young man in his native Owensboro, Ky.
''But when I got to NASCAR, I was only saying what was on my mind,'' he said. ''I guess there were a lot of people, including Big Bill France, who didn't like that very much.''
It's true that France, the founder of NASCAR, often told people that Waltrip needed to ''shut his mouth and drive.'' But eventually, even the grand old man came to enjoy Waltrip.
''My dad knew talent when he saw it,'' said Bill France Jr., the NASCAR president and a longtime friend of Waltrip. ''We're all going to miss him on the racetrack.''
But there's little doubt it's time for Waltrip to head to the TV booth, where his folksy wit and loquacious ways should help NASCAR build an audience for its new $28.8 billion TV deal with NBC, Fox and Turner.
Waltrip's best days on the track are long behind him.
He remains tied for third on the career winner's list with 84 victories, but the last of those came in September 1992 in the Southern 500. Waltrip hasn't finished among the top 10 in points since he was ninth in 1994, and the last of his three Winston Cup championships -- all while driving for Junior Johnson -- came in 1985.
''That was the most productive period of my career, when Junior and I were together,'' Waltrip said. ''There was just something magical about that deal. He gave me great cars and great equipment and I drove the heck out of them. We knew how to win.''
Although he was already a star of some magnitude when he left Bill Gardner's DiGard Team to drive for Johnson in 1981, Waltrip was just beginning to find his way into the hearts of fans, who had considered him a threat to their real heroes -- Yarborough, Richard Petty, David Pearson and Bobby Allison.
In his six seasons with Johnson, Waltrip won 43 races and -- as the older stars began to fade -- he gained respect and admiration.
''I guess people began to accept who I was after I'd been around long enough for them to realize that what they were seeing was really me,'' Waltrip said. ''Whatever the reason, I'm glad people liked me better. Nobody likes to be booed.''
Jeff Gordon has never been as outspoken as Waltrip, but the 29-year-old superstar was met with much the same attitude from the fans -- the boos serenading him any time he showed his face or got passed on the track.
''I guess you can look at that as a form of respect,'' Gordon said. ''Darrell was making people mad because he was beating the guys they loved. I was making people mad because they thought I was winning too much.
''In the end, though, you can't deny that Darrell Waltrip is one of the greatest drivers of all time. Eventually, people realized what they were seeing and began to appreciate him. The sport will be poorer for his retiring.''
But maybe Waltrip is getting out just in time. His stature has been fading the past few years as he has struggled just to qualify for races and has been uncompetitive more often than not.
Going into Sunday's race, Waltrip is 37th in the standings and has not managed a top-10 finish in 27 starts.
''I've never felt that I couldn't get in the car and win, and I still don't,'' Waltrip said. ''I believe, with the right equipment and the right circumstances, I could still be competitive. But everything has an ending, and it's time for me to step out of the car and do something else.
''I won't miss those boos I used to hear, but I sure will miss the cheers.''
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