DW Countdown: The Final Race

It’s finally arrived: The final week of the final season for Darrell

For some 35 years - including 28 in NASCAR Winston Cup - Waltrip has been tugging on his helmet on race week and strapping himself into a stock car. Sunday at Atlanta Motor Speedway, he’ll do it for the final time.

The 53-year-old driver says he’ll miss not just the racing, but all that goes with it.

"Packing bags, getting things ready to go on the road, making plans, arriving at the track and meeting everybody... it's the little things like that I'm going to miss,'' Waltrip says. "It's more than just the competition on the track; I'll be leaving behind a whole lifestyle.''

But, in his heart of hearts, Waltrip knows the time has come to hang it up. In fact, it’s probably past due. The past few years have been an ongoing struggle for the former three-time champion, who, try as he might, was unable to recapture his past championship form.

Waltrip billed this final season as a "Victory Tour'' but he never came close to winning.

Waltrip didn't intend to mislead anybody - including himself . He honestly felt at the start of the year that he could be competitive this season and in contention to win a race or two. Unfortunately, that turned out to be overly optimistic.

Still, it hasn’t been a wasted season. Waltrip's final fling has provided a poignant story line at each stop, especially during the second half of the season, as track after track commemorated his final visit.

His Victory Turned into a Sentimental Journey, a bittersweet goodbye.

Despite his struggles, and the growing realization that his chance of winning was hopeless, Waltrip trooped on. The easy thing would have been to walk away. The hard thing was to keep trudging on, even when hope was clearly lost.

Incredibly, even in the darkest hours, Waltrip has managed to keep his wit and sense of humor, at least in public.

Privately, the battering has taken a toll.

It’s been painful to watch. Waltrip's friends and fans cringed with each blow. Watching Waltrip wobble through this season was like watching a proud but beaten old boxer struggle to his feet time after time, only to absorb more punishment. There were times we wished Darrell would stay down for the count.

There is another reason why Darrell's friends will breathe a sigh of relief Sunday when he climbs from his car for the final time: He will have survived.

During more than three decades in man's most dangerous sport, Waltrip has had harrowing encounters and repeated flirts with disaster. He has lost good friends, like Neil Bonnett, to racing tragedies.

Waltrip hasn't escaped entirely unscathed - he bears his share of battle scars - but he is getting out with his health intact. Many others were not so fortunate.

This is obviously not the exit Waltrip had planned. There will be no John Elway or Michael Jordan-type departure, champions walking away at the top of their game. Waltrip will not leave in a victory spray of champagne.

He hoped for a miracle. It didn't happen.

Despite the bitter finish, the dashed hopes, Waltrip has repeatedly told fans, "Don't weep for me. I've had a great career.'' That's sound advice.

Looking at the big picture, few drivers in NASCAR history have enjoyed a better career than Waltrip. That's what he should be remembered for, rather than these final seasons of painful struggle.

As for the slump, at least he can say he kept trying. He didn't give up. He hung tough through trying times. He continued to race his heart out, long after the cheering had faded and died. Maybe that's the sign of a true champion.

Now it's almost over, one last green flag, one last race, just a few more laps to retirement.

There will be a sense of sadness on one hand, come Sunday afternoon, but a sigh of relief on the other.

Larry Woody is a columnist for RacingOne.com and the Nashville Tennessean.

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