Dale Earnhardt Jr., Waltrip's DEI teammate, says Michael came along at a perfect time.

"I don't think he gets enough credit for the role he played in keeping DEI together after Daddy's death," he explains. "Michael was experiencing the same level of grief as the rest of us. He did a lot that not a lot of people know about or give him credit for."

Junior says that when Waltrip joined DEI, "I was happy to have him come aboard because he's always been fun, good for a laugh. After Dad died we kind of had to develop a new relationship. He was really my dad's friend, not mine at first, so we kind of had to redefine what our friendship was going to mean and what we needed to do to move forward. Now we're close and can talk to each other about anything you can name."

"Nobody will ever know how much Michael hurt that day, and still hurts," Darrell says. "He is really a very sensitive guy who tends to keep his feelings inside. The public sees a Michael who's always upbeat and lighthearted, but inside there lurks a deep, sensitive soul. I've always said that he does his crying on the inside, where nobody can see."

Waltrip returned to Daytona to win the 500 again in 2003, and this time he was able to celebrate. But that sterling start gradually dissolved as the season wore on, and he won only once more, at Talladega in the fall. Now, at age 41, Michael is among a host of other NASCAR veterans who are being pressed by a talented pack of young lions. He realizes that his opportunities are growing fewer and fewer.

"It wasn't the year we had hoped for," Waltrip says of the '03 season. "But hey, we won the Daytona 500 for a second time, so it can't be all that bad. I learned a long time ago to dwell on the positive instead of the negative. In this sport there tends to be a lot more downs than ups, so you'd better enjoy the ups while you can. Yeah, we had some disappointments last year, but we also enjoyed some great times, too."

He smiles, blue eyes twinkling, and adds: "Clouds may gather and things may look dark and gloomy, but you know what? Eventually the sun always comes back out."

Waltrip is not sure when his driving days will end, but he's already mapping plans for his future-plans that call for him to remain active in the sport.

"I want to have my own Cup team someday," says Waltrip. "I'm enjoying running my own Busch team, and at some point I'd like to take it to the next level. That will give me a chance to remain in the sport, doing something I'm very passionate about."

A broadcasting career also beckons after he hangs up his helmet.

"I love doing TV and radio, and folks seems to think I'm pretty good at it," Waltrip says. "That's something I would love to continue doing. There's no reason why I couldn't do both-be a team owner and a broadcaster at the same time. Shoot, that's what I'm doing right now, in addition to driving. One thing's for sure, even after I'm done driving, I plan on remaining involved in racing in some form or fashion for a long, long time."