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Waltrip gets Hall of Fame surprise

CHARLOTTE -- Darrell Waltrip was speechless.

He couldn't say anything. He couldn't think. Everything was blank.

It was Thursday, the day before Waltrip would be inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame's third class -- and a day after he found out his oldest daughter Jessica would make him a grandfather for the first time.

As Waltrip walked into his hotel room at The Ritz-Carlton, another surprise awaited. There stood his youngest daughter, Sarah Kaitlyn -- who was not expected back from a mission trip in the Philippines for another month.

"Hi daddy," she said.

Waltrip stood motionless.

This looked like his 19-year-old daughter, but it couldn't be. She was supposed to be halfway around the world. This woman had darker hair (he hadn't seen Sarah since she had darkened her blonde hair). For a moment, Waltrip thought this was a cruel joke as he tried to understand who stood before him.

Stevie Waltrip said she'd never seen her husband like this. She thought he was about to pass out or have a heart attack.

Van Colley, Waltrip's business manager, who arranged Sarah's trip and kept it secret from everyone in the family except for Stevie, feared the shock to Waltrip. For a moment, Colley worried he would be remembered as "the man that killed Darrell Waltrip."

Slowly, Waltrip realized it was his daughter in front of him. He tightly embraced her and cried.

"I think I've seen Elvis a couple of times, and I think I've seen the Lord a couple of times, but I'd never seen anything like that," Waltrip said. "Best surprise a man could ever get."

It was this special moment, after weeks of planning, that made Friday's induction into the NASCAR Hall of Fame even more meaningful for Waltrip.

The only time Waltrip's voice cracked during his 23-minute acceptance speech was when he mentioned Sarah's surprise.

The moment personified what the night was about: Family. From the Wood Brothers celebrating the induction of Glen Wood to crew chief Dale Inman, a cousin to Richard Petty, also joining the Hall. They were joined by the late Richie Evans, considered the greatest modified driver ever, and three-time Cup champion Cale Yarborough, who thanked his 90-year-old mother for attending.

With Sarah not expected to attend, the plan was for her to tape a congratulatory note for her dad and it would be played while he was on stage. She even filmed it while in Southern California before heading to the Philippines with the group Youth With A Mission, a nonprofit Christianity organization.

Later, the trip leaders told Sarah that if she wanted to, she could leave for a week to attend the Hall of Fame ceremonies before returning. She called Colley and he worked on arranging her 25-hour flight and her 27-hour flight back on Monday.

Just as her plans changed, so did Sarah's missionary trip after floods devastated parts of the Philippines last month.

The group traveled to Cagayan de Oro where about 900 were killed and about half the community's population left homeless by the floods. Sarah and her group have provided aid by helping clean. As they shoveled mud, they've uncovered flip-flops, dolls and other personal items of people displaced or swept away.

Sarah and her group also have helped by just being there to talk to survivors.

"One of the women we talked to for a like an hour, she was just crying," Sarah said. "You can just see the pain. It totally wrecks you. You're emotionally spent. You're mentally and physically spent. She was sitting on the river bank washing out everything that she could find of her own in the river and it's all covered by mud and they're doing it by hand. You can just see the pain and exhaustion on their face."

It is this that she'll return to when her plane leaves early Monday morning. She'll return home Feb. 25, the day before the Daytona 500. Waltrip will be in Daytona to broadcast the race for Fox, delaying their reunion a day.

That's fine after Sarah got to see the man she called her "best friend."

Even after their embrace, Waltrip remained stunned. As the family sat at lunch together about 45 minutes after Waltrip saw Sarah, Waltrip continued to wipe tears away.

"We've hugged and touched and looked for each other and made eye contact ever since (Thursday)," Waltrip said.

When Waltrip, the last of the honorees to be inducted, came on stage, there was Sarah sitting in the front row. She leaned back in her chair, looked over to Colley and said, "thank you."

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