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Curator's Corner / Exhibits

Darrell Waltrip’s Comeback Car

Joining forces with old rival Dale Earnhardt, Darrell Waltrip drove back to the front in 1998.

When the NASCAR Hall of Fame began planning our “Glory Road: 75 Years” exhibit in 2022, we approached it from the perspective of wanting each of the 18 cars in the exhibit to tell a story.

In the case of NASCAR Hall of Famer Darrell Waltrip (Class of 2012) and the No. 1 Dale Earnhardt Inc. 1998 Chevrolet Monte Carlo, the theme was all about “frenemies” – how he and once bitter rival Dale Earnhardt (Class of 2010) came together to help each other out in 1998, a time when both men needed and received help from each other.

There were never any questions about Waltrip’s Hall of Fame credentials. His 84 NASCAR Cup Series race victories ranks fourth overall and his three series championships tie him for fifth place with Lee Petty (Class of 2011), David Pearson (Class of 2011) and Tony Stewart (Class of 2020).

The No. 1 Dale Earnhardt Inc. 1998 Chevrolet that Darrell Waltrip drove at Pocono Raceway is one of 18 cars on Glory Road at the NASCAR Hall of Fame. Photo courtesy of NASCAR Archives & Research Center via Getty Images

In 1998, though, Waltrip’s Glory Days were mostly behind him.

The Owensboro, Kentucky, driver had not won a race since 1992 and had only one top-five and six top-10 finishes in 1996-97.

The 1998 season got off to a disastrous start for Waltrip. Driving his own Chevrolet in the first five races of the year, Waltrip never finished better than 30th and was ranked 40th in points.

A bad accident changed all that.

Atlanta Motor Speedway hosted the fourth race of the season, the Primestar 500. During practice, Steve Park’s No. 1 DEI Chevrolet punctured a tire entering the front stretch dogleg. Park’s car violently bounced off the outside wall and turned left. Still traveling at high speed, the car hit the inside pit wall, with the heavy impact breaking Park’s leg and fracturing his clavicle, putting him out of action.

Darrell Waltrip began the 1998 season in a Chevrolet he owned, but he closed down his team early in the season. Photo courtesy of NASCAR Archives & Research Center via Getty Images

Team owner Earnhardt needed a competent replacement driver to fill Park’s spot. As things happened, Waltrip’s sponsor defaulted on its payment, leaving Waltrip without financial backing to run his team.

Just as Waltrip was running out of funding, Earnhardt reached out to his old rival and they quickly struck a deal for Waltrip to drive the No. 1.

Paired with crew chief Philippe Lopez and car chief Chad Knaus (Class of 2024), Waltrip had a few good runs with the team, including a fifth-place finish at California Speedway (now Auto Club Speedway).

Darrell Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt, pictured here at Texas World Speedway in 1981, were fierce competitors and sometimes bitter rivals. NASCAR Hall of Fame Permanent Collection, gift of Al Steinberg

The real breakthrough for Waltrip and the team would come at Pocono Raceway on June 21, when Waltrip led 10 laps and nearly won the race before being passed by eventual winner Jeremy Mayfield on Lap 180.

Waltrip’s car faded at the end and he finished sixth, but the race was more about where he ran than his final position. Overjoyed to finally be running up front again, Waltrip fought back tears as he got out of the car at Pocono. He had heard the doubters say he was washed up, but his performance on that day silenced the critics and showed that he still could contend to win races.

Emerging from the cockpit of the DEI Chevrolet, Waltrip and his wife Stevie hugged enthusiastically, and then Waltrip met the press.

“I’ll tell you, gosh durn, I’m pretty excited,” Waltrip said. “Praise the Lord for a good day. I’m so close to winning. It’s big. This is big.”

The emotion and the sense of relief were palpable as Waltrip’s post-race interview continued. Told by a reporter that “a lot of people left you for dead,” Waltrip responded, “They didn’t put quite enough dirt on me. Kicked it off and crawled back out. I’ve been in holes before and crawling’ out of a pretty deep one right now, but damn, this is good.”

Waltrip wrapped up the interview with even more emotion.

“Dadgum, I’m just so pleased, I can’t tell you. It brings tears to my eyes,” he said. “To get back out there and compete like this, I never thought I’d see it. I thought I was done. But I’m doing pretty good right now.”

Darrell Waltrip finished the 1998 season in this Tabasco-sponsored Chevrolet. Photo courtesy of NASCAR Archives & Research Center via Getty Images

Waltrip drove the No. 1 Chevrolet for 13 races until Park recovered from his injuries and returned to the cockpit. And how’s this for strange? In his final three of 13 starts with DEI, Waltrip finished 13th each time. From there, Waltrip moved to the No. 35 Tabasco-sponsored Chevrolet owned by Tim Brewer. In his first start in that car, Waltrip finished 13th for a fourth consecutive race.

For his career, Waltrip earned 390 top-10 finishes. The last of those was his sixth place run at Pocono.

An indication of just how much the Pocono race meant to Waltrip is that he asked Earnhardt to keep the car, and Earnhardt obliged.

You can see Waltrip’s DEI Chevrolet, built by Chad Knaus in his one year with the team, on Glory Road at the NASCAR Hall of Fame until January 2026.

Plan your visit to the NASCAR Hall of Fame and purchase tickets by visiting nascarhall.com/tickets.

Tom Jensen

Tom Jensen

Tom is the Curatorial Affairs Manager at the NASCAR Hall of Fame. For more than 25 years, he has been part of the NASCAR media industry.