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WALTRIP WANTS BACK ON TRACK

WALTRIP WANTS BACK ON TRACK

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Darrell Waltrip is tired of sitting on the couch. Stevie Waltrip is tired of hearing him complain about it.

So this weekend, at Richmond International Raceway, Darrell Waltrip will throw his crutches aside, climb into a race car (with a little help from his friends) and drive in the Miller Genuine Draft 400.Waltrip's return will, for one weekend anyway, take away much of the attention surrounding what is becoming a heated battle for the Winston Cup title between Dale Earnhardt, Mark Martin and Geoff Bodine. The attention will be on Waltrip's leg, which was shattered in a gruesome accident in July at Daytona and has been bolted, pinned and plated together in an effort to restore Waltrip's walking ability.

This weekend, he will take a big step into a machine capable of wiping out two months of rehabilitation. He says he will do it to prove a point to himself, but it could be for potential sponsors for his new race team. Waltrip has yet to sign up a sponsor for 1991, and sources say he had been turned down by at least two potential companies even before the Daytona crash.

In any event, when the green flag falls Sunday at 1:15 p.m., Waltrip's comeback will be complete.

``In the past few months, I've learned just how much I want to get into a race car again,' Waltrip said. ``I've thought many times recently that maybe I didn't want to race anymore, but sitting at home, I learned that I really needed to race again - real quick. I found that out sitting at home on the couch.'

While at home the past few weeks, the Waltrips have enjoyed being away from the sport, but only to a point. Every Sunday, he said, he started itching to get back out on a race track.

``Stevie (Waltrip's wife) is not looking forward to getting back to racing,' he said. ``She doesn't want to start all the travel and everything again.'

But she will not miss Darrell's talking about getting back out on the race track.

``I've had time to think and to watch races on television and listen to them on the radio during those two months,' Waltrip said. ``And I'll tell you one thing - I've found that there is nothing I would like better on a Sunday afternoon than to be in a Winston Cup car, poking and gouging out there on the race track. It's time for me to get back in the saddle.'

Waltrip attempted to drive at Pocono only two weeks after the crash, but could only get in a lap before relief driver Jimmy Horton took over. The week before that race, Waltrip and his team members practiced several times getting the driver in and out of the car without seriously injuring him further.

``We did it over and over,' Waltrip said. ``There was no celebrating.'

Once he determined that he could indeed drive a car again, he had to answer questions from incredulous reporters and fans who could not believe he was ready to drive again.

``I broke my leg,' Waltrip countered. ``I didn't hurt my head.'

Waltrip didn't just break his leg. He shattered it. In a hard crash during practice the day before the Firecracker 400, Waltrip suffered a spiral fracture of his thigh bone. Track physicians who witnessed the rescue effort, which took some 25 minutes to extract Waltrip from the demolished car, doubted that he would drive again this year - if ever.

Waltrip's helmet was cracked when rescue workers arrived at his wrecked car, and he was unconscious.

``There was blood everywhere,' one rescue worker said. ``It didn't look good at all.'

Waltrip was transported to Halifax Medical Center where he underwent five hours of surgery for doctors to insert an 18-inch metal plate onto the splintered thigh bone. They said that his recovery period would be indefinite. And they were talking about walking - not racing.

Come Sunday, Waltrip plans to run the entire race with a special brace holding up his injured left leg. He will have Grand National driver Bobby Hamilton standing in his pit in case he needs relief.

``I plan to go the whole way,' Waltrip said. ``I feel like I can make the whole ride. I'm going to have him stand by for me in case I can't go the distance, but I think I can and hope I won't need him, but we'll have him there.

``I know that when I do get back, people are going to see a different Darrell Waltrip behind the wheel. I've found that winning is a very important part of my life - and that I haven't been doing as much of it lately as I want.'

So Waltrip, who has won at least one race in the last 14 seasons, wants to keep that string alive. And he's willing to go to great risks to do it.

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