Thirty years ago this Sunday, Darrell Waltrip captured his first and only win at the Daytona 500, putting an exclamation point on an already Hall of Fame career.
It wasn’t a shock that Waltrip won, but rather HOW he won. Waltrip famously ran the final 55 laps on one tank of fuel, something his contemporaries thought was impossible.
Enter Ken Schrader, Waltrip’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate.
“I remember everything went really well all weekend right until the big day. It didn’t go bad, but we got beat on fuel mileage,” said Schrader. “I didn’t think he could go that distance, but he did.”
Schrader was the class of the field throughout Speedweeks. He won the pole (he won three straight from 1988-90), won the Busch Clash, and won his Twin 125-mile qualifying race. His speed carried over into Sunday as he led a race-high 114 laps. His biggest competition, Dale Earnhardt, had engine issues and could only follow Schrader in the draft.
The duo of Schrader and Earnhardt were well in front of the field when they dipped to pit road together for a splash of fuel. Earnhardt’s stop was much quicker than Schrader’s, and he left pit road with a sizeable advantage. But Earnhardt’s engine woes left him a sitting duck and Schrader caught and passed Earnhardt with ease.
“I was surprised how quick we tracked Dale down, but he was having a bit of an engine problem,” Schrader said. “When I got to him, he pulled over and let me go. I thought ‘Holy heck, this is not like Dale. He must be needing to hang on.’
With Earnhardt seemingly unable to mount a charge, the 500 was Schrader’s to win.
Until it wasn’t.
“And then we’re coming at a high rate of speed and then all of sudden they say ‘Hey, (Waltrip) might not be pitting. He’s going slow. He’s just drafting with whoever.’ So, we knew what he was going to do. Times were a little different then. There’s no telling how big his damn tank was. But it was legal the way they checked. Darrell had been close a lot of times. Nobody was going to draft better than him. He knew what to do. They made that commitment at the last stop. We just got beat. There are no two ways about it.”
And thus, Schrader was relegated to second place, almost eight seconds behind Waltrip.
“I remember after the race I went down to victory lane and congratulated him. No big problem. We won the (Clash), the pole and the qualifying race and ran second in the 500. Hell, we’ll just win it next year! And when I woke up the next morning, I didn’t have near as good an attitude as I went to bed with.”
Schrader returned to Daytona every year through 2007, but never found the key to victory lane. He finished in the top ten 12 times, including third and fourth place finishes in 1996 and 1998 respectively. Schrader did win the Clash twice (’89, ’90) and won two Twin 125 races (’87, ’89). Thirty years later, Schrader says he doesn’t dwell on the ’89 race as ‘the one that got away’.
“Daytona was very good to us,” he said. “It would’ve been a lot nicer to say we won it. It would’ve been pretty cool, but we were there for a lot of years and that’s more important.”
As for Schrader’s fondest memory at Daytona, it’s not his dominant ’89 Speedweeks. Instead, rewind the clock to two years prior, when Schrader drove for legendary car owner Junie Donlavey.
“Without a doubt, it’s 1987 and winning a qualifying race with Mr. Donlavey,” said Schrader. “Mr. Donlavey had only won one race, but he was one of the most well-liked and most respected guys in the garage, and to be able to win a race in his car, and to see the other team members and how excited they were for Mr. Donlevy…that was head and shoulders above running second.”
It was a remarkable accomplishment at a time when Bill Elliott was practically unbeatable and Donlavey’s team was still finding its way.
“It was huge. It was my third year with him. We just rode around the first two seasons. We had a little better budget and we had a few more people. We unloaded at Daytona and we were third quickest and won a 125 and led some of the 500. It was huge.”