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On This Date in Sports February 19, 1989: Running on Empty

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Darrell Waltrip wins the Daytona 500 with a calculated gamble. Late in the race, Waltrip and his team decided to stay on the track instead of coming for one last fuel run. The gamble paid off, as there were no cautions in the previous 53 laps. As a result, Darrell Waltrip wins the race by 7.63 seconds over Ken Schrader finishing the race on fumes.

Darrell Waltrip was born in Owensboro, Kentucky, on February 5, 1947. Upon arriving in NASCAR in 1972, Waltrip quickly became one of the most popular drivers. In 1975, he won his first Winston Cup Race, taking the checkered flag in the Music City 420. As the 1980s began, Darrell Waltrip became one of the top drivers in NASCAR, winning the Winston Cup three times in 1981, 1982, and 1985. However, success in the Great American Race eluded him. Darrell Waltrip’s best finish was second in 1979.

Darrell Waltrip was driving the #17 car as he raced in the Daytona 500 in 1989. It was his 17th attempt to win the Great American Race, as he knew his opportunities were running out. For most of the day, it looked as if Waltrip’s teammate at Hendrick’s Motorsports, Ken Schrader, would win the race. Schrader had begun the race on the pole and led the race for 114 laps.

For years, Darrell Waltrip had been a consistent top-ten finisher in the Daytona 500 but had yet to reach victory lane. As the race dragged on, Waltrip again battled for the lead. As many of the other contenders looked for one last fuel stop, Waltrip and his crew calculated if they played their cards right, they could win the race without a pit stop. As the race entered the final few laps, Darrell Waltrip was in front though his tank was nearly empty. Needing help, he got behind the drivers who were not a lap down and began drafting. This helped reduce drag and enabled him to conserve fuel while riding on empty. The gamble paid off as Darrell Waltrip crossed the finish line 7.63 seconds ahead of Ken Schrader, while Dale Earnhardt finished third.

As it turns out, it was fortunate that it was not the Daytona 501, as Darrell Waltrip ran out of gas shortly after crossing the finish line and needed to be pushed down victory lane. Waltrip would celebrate the win by spiking his helmet and doing the “Ickey Shuffle,” a dance done by Ickey Woods of the Cincinnati Bengals every time he scored a touchdown. It would be the only time Darrell Waltrip, who was voted twice the Most Popular Driver and won three Winston Cups, would win the Great American Race, as he never again finished in the top ten.