MWR's Three-Car Team Leading the Toyota Charge in 2012
Michael Waltrip Racing's Martin Truex Jr. (56) and Clint Bowyer (15). (ASP, Inc.)
In its sixth full season of Sprint Cup competition, Michael Waltrip Racing is making a push at becoming a powerhouse on NASCAR’s premier circuit.
MWR’s three-team operation has combined for five top 5s and 12 top 10s thus far in 2012. Spearheaded by Martin Truex Jr. and the No. 56 NAPA team, MWR finds its two full-time drivers — Truex and Clint Bowyer — in the top 10 in the point standings.
Third-year MWR driver Truex and crew chief Chad Johnston concluded the 2011 season on an uptick, recording four top 10s in the final five races. That momentum carried through the offseason as the duo have yet to finish worse than 17th this year. Included are finishes of third (Bristol), fifth (Martinsville) and sixth (Bristol) and a fourth-place spot in the championship standings.
“It’s been a good start to the season for us,” Truex says. “Everybody at MWR has done a nice job. For us, it’s just about coming here and trying to keep it rolling.
“We’ve had about 10 or 11 good races in a row going back to last year. That feels good. We just need to continue to build on that.”
Bowyer, a high-profile free-agent hire from Richard Childress Racing, has found immediate chemistry with new MWR crew chief Brian Pattie. Leading the No. 15 team, they have managed runs of sixth (Bristol) and fourth (Las Vegas) and sit 10th in the point standings. Their consistent start is the difference between an organization that once contended for wins three or four times a year, but now, each weekend.
“When I started at RCR, there was nothing to prove there,” Bowyer says. “As a driver, the only thing you can do is not screw up the opportunity. Here, I’m going to have to be part of moving on with a championship-caliber organization. That’s exciting. That’s a challenge I’m looking forward to.”
Key to the turnaround, though, was the hiring of former Richard Childress Racing crew chief and competition director Scott Miller as the organization’s Vice President of Competition.
Miller is a NASCAR veteran, having sat atop the pit box for both Bowyer and Jeff Burton while at RCR. He brought a level of expertise and confidence to his new role at MWR when he signed with the company late in the 2011 season.
“I was very, very pleasantly surprised with what I found when I came in the door,” Miller told the Associated Press. “Obviously, there are still things we are working on, but MWR was not in bad shape at all when I got here. They had started working on new cars and new chassis in the summer. We just needed to clean up and get a little more efficient at what we do.”
Mark Martin, one of the most respected drivers in the sport, also brought a level of professionalism not seen at MWR when, shortly before the season began, he agreed to pilot the No. 55 car for 25 races in 2012.
“What strikes me the most about Mark is, he’s like a kid in a candy store — he’s ready for a new challenge,” Miller says of the driver who finished third in Texas last weekend. “He thrived in that part-time schedule he was in (2007 and ‘08) and I think he really enjoyed himself doing that — not necessarily getting caught up in the Chase race or the championship thing — but just enjoying his craft of driving a racecar.”
Martin’s absence in two races so far has given way to one of the feel-good stories of the 2012 season: Brian Vickers.
A casualty of Red Bull Racing’s departure from NASCAR, Vickers will drive the car in eight Cup races while team co-owner Waltrip picks up four others.
Using his first appearance in the No. 55 as an audition (and a statement), Vickers led 125 laps at Bristol en route to a fifth-place run. Between Vickers and Martin, the No. 55 team has yet to finish worse than 18th, with four top 10s to its credit. Those performances find the team — along with the Nos. 15 and 56 — ranked in the top 10 in the all-important owners standings, guaranteeing their place in the starting lineup each weekend.
That’s a far cry from MWR’s first full season on the circuit in 2007, when its three teams stumbled through a miserable debut effort that found it going home after qualifying a total of 39 times.
“You see all the championship organizations — they don’t just have one bullet, they have two, three or four,” executive vice president Ty Norris says. “We have three bullets every week.
“I still pinch myself because it’s so hard to believe that we’ve got these great people working on the cars, a great attitude and great drivers to get it done. It’s a very exciting time for us.”
And of course, there’s Waltrip, whose two Daytona 500 wins make up for an otherwise unimpressive Cup Series record.
It was Waltrip who founded the organization, placing its first car in what was then the Busch Series in 1994 — finishing third at Bristol with fellow Owensboro, Ky., native Jeff Green at the wheel.
Waltrip’s passion for racing, marketing savvy and business sense — he brought in car enthusiast and Fortress Investment Group founder Rob Kauffman as an investor and co-owner in 2007 — have taken the program from a backyard operation to the thriving, multi-million dollar entity it is today.
“Michael has a lot of passion to give,” Norris explains. “Whether it’s a charitable event or NASCAR racing, the things he cares the most about he just pours his heart into it. He just becomes obsessed with it and the energy he brings when he talks about this (MWR) that gets everybody excited.”
At the rate Waltrip’s teams are going, there will plenty more to be excited about in the very near future.
If you were a NASCAR crew chief on the hot seat, chances are this summer was brought to you by the color pink — as in pink slip. The roster of head wrenches this week underwent a major shift, with two additional replacements bringing the total up to four since June 5: Greg Erwin (No. 16), Pat Tryson (No. 56), Brian Pattie (No. 42) and Mike Shiplett (No. 43) have now been shown the door. That’s over 10 percent of NASCAR’s fully-funded programs, pulling the equivalent of firing their head coach mid-year with roughly two months of “regular season” races still to go.
It’s the earliest we’ve seen such turnover in several years, ever since sponsorship combined with a change in philosophy put the in-season pressure on the pit box, not the driver. (For those newer fans out there, turn the clock back to the mid-1990s and wheelmen’s jobs were about as safe as Rupert Murdoch’s these days; Mike Chase, in fact, once got fired from his ride just one race into the season). And while all of these crew chiefs were winless on the year, none found their drivers completely outside Chase contention. Truex, at 21st, was the lowest in points among the four programs that pulled the plug.
So why do it now? Why make a change while others having terrible seasons — like David Reutimann (24th in points), Jeff Burton (25th) and Jamie McMurray (29th), keep their crews and chemistry intact? Simple: NASCAR’s “wild card” playoff system has changed the game both on and off the track, providing extra incentive for teams willing to take a chance.
Let’s take Juan Pablo Montoya as an example. At 17th in points, he’s 59 behind 10th-place Denny Hamlin — and a Chase spot — with seven races left in the regular season, meaning there’s no margin for error if sneaking inside the top 10 is a possibility. In the past, teams would rely on the experience of Montoya and crew chief Brian Pattie, hoping they can pull a rabbit out of their hat, catch fire and sneak into the playoffs the only way they could: by scoring points, not wins. Any changes, if they were going to be made, wouldn’t happen until the Chase field was set in early September, in preparation for the next season’s run.
Greg Erwin and Greg Biffle by ASP, Inc.
But now, with NASCAR granting two playoff “wild card” spots to drivers with the most wins that are ranked 11th-20th, both Montoya and owner Chip Ganassi smell opportunity. Last season, Montoya was the top-performing car at Indy — the circuit’s next stop — and he enters Watkins Glen in August as the defending champ. Win those two races, and it’s virtually irrelevant how he does in the other five — the No. 42 has earned itself a postseason bid via wins. That means if Ganassi feels a jolt is needed, why not try to catch lightning in a bottle? If Pattie’s replacement, Jim Pohlman, proves the answer there’s still a chance for the organization to contend for the championship now, not next year. Pattie, considering the No. 42 had led only 99 laps on the year, may only have been able to guide Montoya to a top-5 finish in the aforementioned events. Pohlman’s fresh approach could be the energy needed to push the team over the top.
Of course, there’s a chance Pohlman proves to be the wrong move for Montoya, turning the last 17 races into a disastrous ending while turning an already mediocre year into a failure. With 17 races being a more-than-ample trial period, there’s a justified sample size to give Pohlman the axe for 2012 should things go south. By comparison, would the 10 races after Montoya missed the Chase under the old system (and philosophy of doing things) be enough to make the same decision? Possibly not.
This type of theory applies to Biffle, Allmendinger and even Truex. For Biffle, he’s the defending champ at the upcoming Pocono race and has the equipment to make it to Victory Lane — just ask 2011 winners and teammates at Roush, Carl Edwards, David Ragan and Matt Kenseth. As for Allmendinger, while winless in NASCAR, he had a fourth-place finish at Watkins Glen last August. The possibility exists for a new crew chief with fresh ideas to take a chance and improve on that promising run. Even Truex, now a month into working with Chad Johnston, is close enough to the top 20 that a win changes his postseason prospects. And already, his team has three top-10 finishes in six starts with Johnston at the helm.
For crew chiefs, this means the job is more tenuous than ever. Erwin, for example, saw a four-year relationship severed after just four months of struggle. But if there’s a silver lining to what’s been a difficult season for the sport, it’s how the buildup to the postseason for over half the field has turned the focus back to where it should be: winning races instead of settling for a “good points day.”