The Speed Channel's Arneson says it's important to keep in mind that the racetrack is much more than just a laugh-track for Waltrip.

"Michael can be serious when it's called for," Arneson explains. "While he is entertaining, he also brings a tremendous amount of knowledge and perception to the show. He's extremely bright and observant, and he knows racing from top to bottom. He can get very technical when he wants to."

"He knows his stuff," agrees Benson. "Michael likes to clown around, but he's very serious about his racing. There are really two Michael Waltrips-the one who's funny and laid-back in front of the TV cameras, and the one who's very focused and competitive when he gets on that racetrack. I guarantee you, when that starting flag waves, Michael gets very, very serious."

But as soon as the race is over, it doesn't take the "other" Michael long to assert himself. A classic example of Waltrip's knack for impromptu antics occurred in last fall's race at Talladega. Waltrip won the race, skidded to a stop in the grassy infield, and suddenly popped out through the car's new roof-top escape hatch. Never before in the sport had a winning driver made such a "pop-the-top" exit, and the grandstands roared.

Later he admitted it was not entirely unplanned.

"I had told my crew that if I won, I was going to get out through the roof hatch and wave at everybody," Waltrip confessed. "I thought that was cool...that roof hatch is a redneck's sun roof!"

Waltrip climbed from his car 463 times without a win. Finally on February 18, 2001, the streak came to an end. Michael didn't merely win his first Winston Cup race, he won the sport's biggest event-the Daytona 500. Making the day even more memorable was the fact that his brother Darrell was calling the race for Fox Sports. As Michael swept through the final laps and the tension built, Darrell unabashedly cheered on his kid brother from the broadcast booth: "Go Mikey! Go Mikey!"

As his kid brother sailed across the finish line, an emotional Darrell dabbed at his eyes.

But what should have been the brightest moment of his career quickly turned into the darkest. Minutes after winning the race, Waltrip learned that Dale Earnhardt had perished in a last-lap crash, striking the wall at almost the exact moment that Michael swept across the finish line, closely followed by teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Michael's tears of joy immediately turned into tears of grief.

"It was so tragic," Darrell says. "Just think about it. Here the kid had raced all those years without a win, and finally he gets the big one. But instead of being able to celebrate and enjoy his triumph, Michael, like everybody else, is completely immersed in the tragedy of Dale's death. His first big moment, his absolute greatest moment, and he never got to enjoy it."

Earnhardt's death hit Michael hard. It was Earnhardt's car he drove to victory that day; Earnhardt had hand-picked Waltrip to drive for Dale Earnhardt Inc., ignoring the skeptics who questioned Michael's ability to win on NASCAR's top level.

"Dale gave me my big career break," Michael says. "He was the one man in the sport who had faith in me...I owe so much to him. I wouldn't be where I am today without him."