Every February one of the top events in sports takes place on the coast of Florida. Known as “The Great American Race” and “The Super Bowl of Stock Car Racing,” the Daytona 500 has played host to championship moments since 1959. In our daily lives most of us don’t have to dodge drivers and debris at dangerous speeds but we all want to “win” in our friendships, families, and careers.
The team at the Public Square radio show and The Pine podcast sat down with NASCAR legends Darrell and Stevie Waltrip and talked about the joy of winning the Daytona 500 and the pain of losing their friend Dale Earnhardt. We learned three key lessons about winning from our candid time together.
1. Keep Showing Up
Darrell Waltrip had run the Daytona 500 many times—sixteen to be precise. He had won exactly none of those times. Many NASCAR fans didn’t think the 1989 race would be any different. In fact, Darrell himself had come to expect he might never triumph in his sport’s premier event.
“I didn’t think I was ever gonna win it!” he said in our interview.
His most sobering experience at Daytona came in 1983 when his Monte Carlo was virtually destroyed in a whirling wreck on lap sixty-four. Many people would have given up after such a scary event, but Darrell would not let defeats or near disaster stop him. He would later say, “I had come so close, so many times. I couldn’t imagine that sooner or later it wouldn’t work in my favor.” So he donned his helmet, slipped into his number 17 Chevy and took to the track for the seventeenth time. Darrell knew if he ever hoped to win he would at least have to keep showing up.
2. Run Till You Run Out
Stevie was keeping laps for her husband during the 1989 race. She noticed he’d been able to run fifty-two laps before having to pit. Darrell had fifty-four laps left. So the question became, “To pit or not to pit?” If they came in for fuel they were guaranteed to finish the race. But could they spare the time? It did them no good to lose with gas in the tank. Perhaps Stevie best summed up their thoughts when she said, “We know how to lose this race. Let’s go for it and see if we can win it.”
And so, with the television announcers exclaiming Darrell was “running on a prayer,” he began “drafting” all around the track. By following in the slipstream of other cars, he reduced the drag on his own. This allowed him to conserve just enough fuel to coast to victory. Waltrip and his team used a bold approach when a less daring tactic would have surely cost them the race. In winning the Daytona 500 on an empty tank the Waltrips showed that to win sometimes you have to say a prayer, take a leap of faith. and run until you can’t run anymore.
3. God Is Near To The Broken Hearted
Years later, at the 2001 race, Darrell Waltrip was in the broadcast booth, calling the race for FOX. His longtime family friend Dale Earnhardt was nearing the finish line. On the final lap, Dale’s car was clipped and sent careening headlong into the wall. Darrell suspected immediately it was a deadly crash.
Stevie had been giving Dale Earnhardt scripture verses to post in his car for years and on that day she gave her friend Proverbs 18:10, “The name of the Lord is a strong tower; The righteous will run to it and be safe.” In the trying days, weeks, and months after the crash that verse provided comfort to Earnhardt’s family and friends.
“We cried a lot,” said Stevie. “But we did have the assurance from the Lord that Dale was in His arms.”
Dale’s loved ones can also find some solace in the fact that God has brought good from the rubble of heartbreak. Since Earnhardt’s passing, and in the shadow of other fatal wrecks, NASCAR has taken decisive steps to ensure the safety of their drivers. They have mandated the use of the HANS device to reduce the chance of catastrophic head and neck injuries and installed the “SAFER” barriers currently used at all NASCAR tracks. Unquestionably, this dangerous, high-speed sport is now much safer.
But critical practical precautions aren’t the only legacy left in the wake of the wreckage. To this day Stevie now provides Dale Earnhardt, Jr. with a verse before every race. Many people all over the country now find encouragement and peace reading her curated verses on social media by searching the hashtag #steviesverse. Through this story we are reminded that a victory doesn’t always look like we expect. Often God must wrest a win from the jaws of defeat. We must make room for God to be near us even in our pain, for after all, every triumph truly is the Lord’s.
The full interview with Darrell and Stevie Waltrip can be heard here…
Alan C. Duncan is producer of The Public Square radio show and co-host of The Pine. Both are productions of The American Policy Roundtable.