Sticking Up For Family

At first glance, there doesn't appear to be two racing brothers more different than Darrell and Michael Waltrip.

First there’s the huge age gap. Darrell is 53, Michael 37. They represent different generations.

Then there’s the huge victory gap. Darrell has 84 Winston Cup wins, tied for third all-time. Michael has never won a Winston Cup points race. He’s 0-452 in a career that began in 1985.

Through the years Michael has heard the comparisons between the winning Waltrip and the winless Waltrip. He insists it’s never bothered him.

"The losing bothers me, of course,'' Michael says, "but the fact that Darrell was so successful never entered into it. Shoot, nobody was prouder of him than me. I was elated every time Darrell won. I've always been his
biggest fan.''

Growing up in Owensboro, Ky., Darrell and Michael were not that close.

"Darrell was 16 when I was born, and already busy with his racing career,'' Michael explains. "By the time I was 3 or 4, he was traveling a lot, away from home a lot. It wasn't that we didn't want to spend time together, it was just that we didn't have the opportunity.

"But I thought the world of Darrell. He was more than my big brother; he was my hero. He was becoming famous as a driver, and I bragged about him all the time to my friends. What little kid wouldn't like to have Darrell Waltrip as a big brother?''

"It's kind of interesting how our racing careers eventually brought Michael and me closer together,'' Darrell says. "Like he said, we didn't get a chance to spend a lot of time together when he was growing up because I was gone all the time. After he got his own racing career going, we began to get together at the tracks. Not just Michael and me, but our families, as well. Every weekend at the track became a sort of family reunion. Through the years, we've made up for a lot of lost time.''

How much Michael means to Darrell was evident one year when Michael was involved in a horrific crash at Bristol. His car struck a retaining wall and exploded into a spray of flying metal. A badly-shaken Darrell rushed to the scene just as Michael came wriggling out - without a scratch. Darrell was so shaken and overcome with emotion that it took him several minutes to regain his composure.

"My heart literally stopped when I saw that crash,'' Darrell says. "I was thinking, ‘That's my brother! That's my brother!' It was one of the worst scares of my life.''

Darrell, in recent years, has shared Michael's frustrations on the track. He has not won a race in eight years, with just 10 races to go in his 28th and final season. Critics claim he’s hung on too long, that he let pride override reason, that he lost his once razor-sharp edge and should have retired years ago.

Such comments make Michael furious. He’s recently felt compelled to step up and defend his brother.

"It upsets me to hear those things said about Darrell,'' Michael says. "Why can't people just appreciate all the great things he’s done for this sport and the tremendous accomplishments he has had in his career? It's ridiculous that anybody would criticize a man who has meant so much to his sport.

”No one criticized Jack Nicklaus for being 13-over par and missing the cut in the U.S. Open after getting an exemption to play in it. Golf fans were just reveling in the fact that they might have been watching Jack walk up the 18th fairway for the last time, even though he wasn't competitive. That wasn't what it was about.''

Michael, a fan favorite despite having never won on the top level, has several more years left in his career. Darrell, meanwhile, will retire to the Fox Network broadcast booth next season as a NASCAR commentator.

How poignant would be the moment if Darrell, as a broadcaster, got to call the first race won by Michael?

Oh brother, what a scene that would be.

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