"Having my own team and having to sell it, that crushed me," Waltrip recalls. "Whatever hope I had at the beginning of 1998, it became obvious to me I was going to have to sell my team or close my doors. That was the biggest disappointment I've ever had in my sport.
"I had done so much and sacrificed to be a team owner and then to see it all fall apart; it was very demoralizing and very discouraging. It made me lose a lot of faith in this sport. One thing we know about this sport, it's built on the little guys, the guys who were there every week. When the factories pulled out or the big sponsors weren't there, it was always the small guys who kept it going.
"NASCAR has always been very supportive of people like myself who drove their own cars, owned their own cars-a mom-and-pop operation if you will-because that is what NASCAR was all about. That is how NASCAR started off, so there was always that understanding of what it took to drag a race car to the racetrack every week, the kind of commitment and dollars it took. They were always sympathetic of drivers who wanted to be owners. They were always trying to help guys stay in the sport and stay a part of the sport, even when they quit driving to become car owners and have teams.
"It seems as if that trend has gone away as well. Bill Elliott, Ricky Rudd, Geoff Bodine, and I, all of whom wanted to be owner/drivers and ended up being owners at the end of their driving career, can't afford to stay in the sport anymore. There doesn't seem to be any real sympathy or any real concern or compassion for guys like that. It's like, 'If you can't take the heat, better get out of the kitchen.'"
But as the sport changed, Waltrip's days of dominance were over. It was now an era dominated first by Dale Earnhardt, then later by Jeff Gordon. Crashes led to injuries that affected Waltrip's ability behind the wheel of a race car. The demands of being a team owner began to interfere with his concentration behind the wheel of a race car.
He failed to make the field for the first time in his legendary racing career when he didn't make the show at Charlotte in October 1997. It was a devastating experience for the proud driver.
"I had to get out of there that day," Waltrip recalls of the painful walk through the garage area at Charlotte after he didn't qualify for the race. "It was the first time anything like that had ever happened to me. I felt betrayed. There was a champion's provisional. I was 18th in the points. There is no way a champion 18th in the points can miss a race.
But in that particular event, circumstances played against me and lo and behold, I missed that race.
"To Stevie (Waltrip's wife) and I, it was like the end of the world. Our whole racing world tumbled down on us in that very instant as we walked out of that place, because we were helpless. There was nothing you could do, there was nowhere you could go, there was no mistake made. This did happen. You're not going to be in this race, and they are going to have this race whether you are in it or not.
"It was incredible, the feeling I had. I was embarrassed. I was mad. I was hurt. Every emotion you could have, I had as we walked out of that place.
"Stevie and I left there and thank God she was with me, or I don't know what I would have done. We left there and went over to the park and sat and thought about it for a while, talked about it for a while, and then we went on back home. We realized, it's over, there is nothing we can do about it and tomorrow is going to come, we've got two beautiful kids and you have to do the Busch race Saturday, so suck it up, Bucko, and let's get going."
Staying In The Game
Finding a new sponsor and keeping the doors of his race shop open became his top priority in 1998. When the sponsorship arrangement fell apart, Waltrip was forced to sell his team to Tim Beverley. Waltrip took over the #1 Pennzoil-sponsored Chevrolet while its full-time driver, Steve Park, was healing from injuries suffered at Atlanta Motor Speedway in March of that season.