DW Countdown: Time To Move On

And so it ended, one of the most boisterous careers in NASCAR. Not with a bang… but with a sigh.

Darrell Waltrip made his final ride Monday at Atlanta Motor Speedway, starting last and finishing 34th in a rain-delayed event. You could certainly say he went quietly.

Winless in the past eight years, the former three-time champion admitted he had hung on too long. The 53-year-old even suggested - jokingly? - that NASCAR should impose a mandatory age 50 retirement law to prevent future drivers from doing what he had done.

Indeed, it was sad to watch a driver who once ruled the sport struggle to keep up in recent seasons. At the same time, it was inspiring. Waltrip fans didn't witness any triumphs on the track, but they did get to see a triumph of the spirit.

Now it's all over, and Waltrip will go from racing to talking about racing. He will become a commentator on the new Fox telecasts that begin with the February Daytona 500.

The question left to ponder in the offseason is, who'll fill Waltrip's shoes? As he noted, there are plenty of drivers who can carry the load on the track; but are there any who can pick up the slack on other areas?

Interestingly, even as Waltrip was making his exit, young Jerry Nadeau was celebrating his first Winston victory. It was symbolic. One former great walks away; a fresh young talent walks in.

In Nashville, the changing on the guard is equally symbolic. For more than 30 years, Waltrip has provided area fans a Sunday hero to cheer for. As he leaves, a hot young newcomer comes in: Casey Atwood.

The 20-year-old driver will run the full Winston Cup season in 2001, driving one of the new
Dodges for Ray Evernham. Some believe that Evernham can do for Atwood what he did for Jeff Gordon - mold him into a champion.

Talk about timing. Exit Waltrip, enter Atwood.

"Darrell has always been my racing idol,'' Atwood says. "Ever since I was little I watched him race. I admired how he handled himself, both on and off the track. I always wanted to be like him.''

"I guess the more things change, the more they stay same,'' Waltrip said. "Every time somebody moves on in this sport, we wonder how they'll ever be replaced, but somehow they do. Life always goes on. So does racing.''

Waltrip was moved by the celebrations and accolades in his honor during last week's lead-up to Monday's rain-delayed conclusion. Fans, fellow drivers, media and other friends paid tribute to Darrell and his career.

But amid it all, there was one somber note. Bobby Allison, Waltrip's old arch rival, still harbors resentment over the old wars.

I asked Bobby if the time hadn't come to let bygones be bygones between the two proud old warriors.

"Yes, it probably has,'' Bobby said. "I wish I was man enough to do it, but I'm not sure I can.''

Allison did go on to say that he wished Darrell the best of luck with his future. But he stopped short of forgetting and forgiving old grudges. Hopefully, at some point, he can do it.

Meanwhile, the sport has a chance to sit back and catch its breath after an old season of highs and lows, triumph and tragedy. And get ready for the first season in three decades A.D. - After Darrell.

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