Will Jaws Bite?

The preacher is about to get a bigger pulpit.

For some 30 years, Darrell Waltrip has had arguably more impact and influence on NASCAR than any other driver, and now that he's moving from track to broadcast booth, that influence may be even greater.

When Waltrip speaks, thousands - perhaps millions - of fans will listen on the Fox Network.

One reason Fox grabbed Waltrip as the first member of its new broadcasting team is because it expects him to bring a frankness, an edginess, to the booth that has generally been missing in NASCAR telecasts.

Fox wanted Waltrip for the same reason that ABC wanted Dennis Miller on its “Monday Night Football” team - freshness, frankness and wit.

Some feel that Miller has failed to deliver; that he has become bland and predictable. Where's the rant? Instead of nipping at the players' heels with sharp teeth, Miller has become just another toothless broadcast booth lap dog.

Might Darrell do the same? Remember, the driver once nicknamed "Jaws'' for his equally wild driving and talking, has mellowed dramatically in recent years. Old enemies have become best buddies.

His just-completed Victory Tour 2000 turned into a warm and fuzzy goodbye season, complete with tears and hugs and kisses. Can Waltrip now bring himself to tear into his old comrads?

The same applies to his approach to NASCAR. Waltrip, once a racing rebel who delighted in taking on the establishment, now is considered an unofficial good-will ambassador of the sport. Will he be as willing to criticize NASCAR now as he once was?

There’s no question that Darrell knows what Fox wants and expects: A fresh approach to calling races. It wants spice and drama, zest and gusto, not a lecture on tire pressure.

"I believe it's a clean sheet of paper,'' he says. "The good news about (NASCAR's new TV deal) is they don't want it the way it was. Now, there's nothing wrong with the way it is, but they want to wipe the slate clean and take it to the next level. It's been at this level long enough.'

“That opens a lot of doors. It's a great opportunity for someone like me or whomever is involved. That is going to be the exciting thing about next year. I don't think you'll see the status quo coming out of the television booth.''

Waltrip admits, "That could be good, but that could be bad. That's just one of those lines you've got to walk.''

So how will he walk it? Will he be the Cosellian tell-it-like-it-is announcer that Fox envisions, or will he draw in his horns at the moment of truth and soft-pedal his way through sticky issues?

It won't take long to find out. Fox and the Waltrip team have the first race of the 2001 season, the Daytona 500, and more eyes will be on that race than any other. Although Darrell has some limited TV experience, he won't have any break-in time with Fox and the new venture.

As the past season wound down, various roasts, dinners and other assorted get-togethers have been held for Waltrip, with most top drivers participating. Invariably someone jokes about Waltrip's impending new job - and how he will go from giving them swipes on the track to taking swipes at them in the broadcast booth. Just as invariably, everybody chuckles.

But if it actually comes to that - Waltrip making a critical comment on a touchy situation - it may not be so amusing. As he said, he could face a difficult line to toe.

Will Waltrip become the Christopher Columbus of NASCAR broadcasters, bravely exploring new TV horizons and sailing where none have gone before? Or will he be content to travel safe, charted, well-worn paths?

The racing world will be waiting - and watching.

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