Michael Waltrip Racing a long way from troubled Cup debut in 2007
Michael Waltrip (55) and Dale Jarrett (44) in 2007. (ASP, Inc.)
The following article was published on Oct. 12, 2007, during NASCAR’s Charlotte race weekend shortly after a press conference introducing Rob Kauffman as the newest investor in Michael Waltrip Racing was held.
At the time, Waltrip’s Toyota team was floundering in its, and the manufacturer’s, first season in the Cup Series. He would later admit to being nearly broke just months after the three-car operation debuted at Daytona. Enter Kauffman, at the time the latest in a long line of “investor-types” to buy into Cup teams desparate for additional funding. Many observers were apprehensive, and with good reason: A number of the same investment firms that bought in soon bailed when its shareholders saw the year-end ledger.
Credit Kauffman for being different. Turns out, he really is “a car guy,” as Waltrip told us that day — although I have to admit that at the time, I wasn’t necessarily buying it. With Kauffman’s aid, Waltrip’s passion and Toyota’s loyalty, MWR has defied the odds and five years later is a force in the most elite form of motorsports in North America.
The column you’re about to read (and its subject) drew more than it’s share of criticism and belligerence from readers when published — certainly more than this humble and somewhat dumbstruck author thought it deserved. That said, I’ve pulled it out of the electronic mothballs (something I’ve never done) as MWR prepares to take its maiden voyage into the Chase to highlight what Waltrip and his determined band of racers were fighting through early in the development of the company.
Passion Fuels Waltrip’s Past, Present and Future
by Matt Taliaferro
published October 12, 2007
The year was 2001. It was my 26th birthday. My father was receiving the Mayor’s Award of Excellence for community service in our hometown of Owensboro, Ky. Darrell Waltrip was there too, accepting the award for excellence in sports. Each recipient stood and spoke, and while I was very proud of my father and felt him to be deserving it was Darrell’s speech that spoke directly to me.
“Find your passion,” he told us that night. Whether that’s ballet or racing, teaching or writing, the path to being happy and successful is to zero in on what you do well and follow it.
The speech has never left me and I was reminded of it once again today — as I am on most — as I sat and watched Darrell’s younger brother map out the future of his racing organization in a press conference from Lowe’s Motor Speedway. I couldn’t help but watch Darrell who sat, nodding approvingly, from the front row as Michael spoke of passion; passion for what he and wife Buffy had created at MWR; passion for a job he feels lucky to do; passion for the community he is blessed to be a part of; passion for the garage area, which he knows is in his DNA.
Waltrip and current MWR driver Martin Truex Jr. (ASP, Inc.)
“It’s just the way I’ve lived my life,” Waltrip later told me from a dark and busy garage. “I’ve watched this sport in 15 years do amazing things and I feel like it was a lot different back when and I just want to be a part of the “pass-through” to make everybody understand that they should be honored to race the cars, not expected.
“I try to live my life that way; to do the best I can to respect the sport and the France family and all the people that have laid the groundwork before me so I can do this. I don’t take it lightly and I guess that’s why I’m passionate about it.”
Ty Norris, Michael Waltrip Racing’s General Manager, understands. He worked with Waltrip while the two were at Dale Earnhardt, Inc. and helped mold what has become MWR.
“Michael has a lot of passion to give,” Norris explained. “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) gets everybody excited.”
Now you may not be a fan of Toyota’s entry into NASCAR’s Cup Series and you may not be a fan of the driver who spearheaded its entry. Many view Waltrip as more a pitchman than a wheelman and if that’s your opinion, fine. But he’s more than that to a sport that has skyrocketed in popularity and exposure since his first Cup start back in the “old days” (read: 1985). It was a different sport back then; it was a different world. Waltrip knows that in order to stay in the sport he loves, he must change with the times … or stay one step ahead of it.
“It’s too easy in this sport to get down,” Norris continued. “It’s too easy to let the day-to-day minutia run a negative undercurrent (through the team). He doesn’t allow it. He’s always positive, even when we were in our roughest days. He keeps his energy going because he just loves this thing.”
At first glance, it’s understandable why one wouldn’t get the warm and fuzzies for a guy that just sold half his operation to another “outsider” — some corporate suit that knows P&L’s but not K&N’s. But Waltrip, along with being the eternal optimist, is also a realist. It’s just too expensive for a guy — a racecar driver, at that — to survive without more and more money to fund the beast.
We, as fans, must be realists as well. Without guys like Waltrip, whose passion fuels his love for the past, present and future of the sport, what will we be left with? What will the sport become?
Michael left me standing near the garage gate after we spoke, but just before he hopped onto his little golf cart and into the night, he looked back and said something — almost as an afterthought, but with deadly conviction nonetheless — that proved to me his passion and that will stick with me, just as his older brother’s speech years back:
“…and somebody says they saw a boring race last week I wanna hit ‘em, ‘cause I’ve never seen a boring race. Every race I’ve ever seen, I’ve loved it. I’m just a racecar guy.”
Well said, Mikey. If you can’t get behind that kind of fire, you just don’t get it.
Martin Truex Jr. (56) and Clint Bowyer (15). (ASP, Inc.)
The race shop was once a movie theatre. The team’s finances proved as stable as a house of cards. No surprise that one of NASCAR’s biggest dreamers was the owner.
Five years later, Michael Waltrip’s team is in NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup for the first time. Michael Waltrip Racing brings an intriguing mix with drivers Clint Bowyer and Martin Truex Jr., who both have shown the ability to string several strong races together this season.
Neither likely will be among the Chase favorites, though, because most people will be smitten with Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin or Dale Earnhardt Jr. All are worthy picks and make it easy to overlook Waltrip’s group.
While much will be made of Hendrick Motorsports putting all four cars in the Chase after Jeff Gordon’s determined drive at Richmond to secure the final wild card spot, just think what could have been for Waltrip’s team. Had Mark Martin run the entire schedule instead of a majority of races, he could have been in position to make the Chase and put all three MWR cars in it. Still, Waltrip’s team has more cars in the Chase than traditional powerhouses Joe Gibbs Racing, Richard Childress Racing and defending champions Stewart-Haas Racing.
That’s a credit to what Waltrip has built along with co-owner Rob Kauffman, who joined the organization in Oct. 2007 and saved it with his infusion of cash.
“They hired the right people,” Denny Hamlin says. “They hired the right drivers. That's how you become successful.
“(MWR) is going to be around for a long time. You look at the progression of the race team, they’re legit now. I mean, they are guys you're going to have to beat week in, week out.”
Bowyer, who joined the team this season, enters the Chase with two wins after his victory last weekend at Richmond. He’s finished in the top 10 in five of the last six races.
“With everything new, never would (I) have dreamed in a million years all this would have happened this quickly,” Bowyer said after his win last weekend.
Asked about the possibility of winning the title, Bowyer said: “Jimmie (Johnson) seems like he has a blast doing it. I promise you I could throw a better party than him. Might not survive it, but we would have a lot of fun.”
As for Truex, he seeks his first win since 2007, but has shown signs of contending for victories, especially during a stretch in the spring where he finished fifth at Martinsville, sixth at Texas and second at Kansas — all Chase tracks. He had finished no worse than 11th in seven races until placing 21st at Richmond. Still, he’s lead in four consecutive races entering the Chase, his longest streak of the season.
"I'm going to be honest with you, the way our cars are running and as fast as we've been the last six or seven weeks we're dangerous,” Truex says. “I know we're kind of an underdog and not a lot of people expect us to do much. It's a good position to be in. We just need to be smart, make good decisions and our Toyotas are strong enough to do this thing. (I’m) looking forward to going out and having some fun and hopefully we'll put together 10 good races and be in the hunt.
Regan Smith (ASP, Inc.)
GETTING BETTER It’s easy to miss because Regan Smith has not been in contention for a Chase spot, but a team that showed promise last year, winning the Southern 500, is displaying signs of improvement after struggling much of this season.
Since Todd Berrier was hired as crew chief before Indianapolis, Smith has had an average finish of 17.0. Not spectacular by any means, but in the seven races before the crew chief change was made, Smith’s average finish was 28.0.
“We weren’t happy with what was going on at the beginning part of the year,” Smith says. “Certainly none of us were happy with how we were running, myself included. This is a race team that up until the start of the season, and maybe the last five races of last year, was on the uphill swing.
“We seemed to get better each week and seemed to learn new stuff each week and we went through a period there of probably 15 races or so until we made some changes a (few) weeks ago. We were having the same problems week-in and week-out and weren’t learning and weren’t fixing and didn’t understand them. Todd Barrier came in and he’s done a great job.”
NUMBER CRUNCHING Tony Stewart has the best average finish of any driver at Chicagoland Speedway, which hosts the opening Chase race Sunday. Stewart’s average finish there is 8.7 with three wins and nine top-10 finishes in 11 starts. ... Of the 10 Chase tracks, the series has raced at eight of them this season. Greg Biffle has the best average finish among this year’s title contenders at those tracks at 6.4. ... Jimmie Johnson is the only driver to have made the Chase all nine years.
PIT STOPS Matt Kenseth will debut a new chassis this weekend at Chicagoland Speedway. ... The chassis Kevin Harvick will use was first raced by Austin Dillon (24th at Michigan) and then run by Harvick at Pocono (14th). ... The chassis Dale Earnhardt Jr. will drive was run at both Pocono races this season where his best finish with it was eighth in June. ... Kasey Kahne’s chassis will be one he’s raced three times this season, including at Charlotte when he won the Coca-Cola 600. ... Greg Biffle will use the same chassis this weekend that he won with at Michigan last month.
With Toyota extending it’s deal with Michael Waltrip Racing, along with Joe Gibbs Racing and JTG Daugherty, it leads to the question of what will happen to Martin Truex Jr., who is in the final year of his contract at MWR.
Truex enters this weekend’s NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Dover sixth in the point standings with seven top-10 finishes in the first 12 races. He turns 32 later this month and with the improvements at MWR, seems set to show what he can do in the prime of his career. Then again, someone else also could be interested in his services.
“I’ll tell you this, I really hope to be back where I'm at right now,” Truex said last week at Charlotte Motor Speedway. “I love this team. I love the direction we’re going. And, hopefully we’ll just have to see how everything lines up. My heart is with the team and that's where I want to be.
“I feel like we’ve come a long, long way. We’ve worked very, very hard to get to where we are. It would be a shame to have to do something different after coming this far. My career has been one of those where it seems like every time things would start going good — something big happened or something big changes and really hurt progress. Hopefully, that won’t be the case this time.”
This is Truex’s third season with Waltrip’s team and he’s headed toward his best season with the organization. His four top-five finishes thus far equal how many he’s had the past two seasons combined. His best finish in the points at MWR was last year when he was 18th.
Truex also notes that the extension with Toyota is important for Michael Waltrip Racing for various reasons.
“I think it’s a big thing for NAPA to know that Toyota is behind them 100 percent for the next number of years,” Truex said. “Great manufacturer, great support team — they do so much for Michael Waltrip Racing and really Toyota Racing Development ... has been a huge part of the turnaround and the resurgence of Michael Waltrip Racing. To have that support going forward for the next few years, it obviously has to make Michael (Waltrip, team owner) and Rob (Kaufmann, team owner) and everybody there feel good about the direction the team’s headed.
“Hopefully, we’ll be able to get our deal done soon too and kind of coincide with all that and be able to go race and go after wins for a lot of years to come.”
GIVE-AND-TAKE Ryan Newman often was considered among the toughest drivers to pass during a race. He explains what earned him that distinction and how he’s changed over the years.
“I was never taught to give-and-take,” Newman said. “I was always taught to race hard. Going back to quarter midgets and then especially in the stock cars, I was always taught to race hard. Buddy Baker never taught me (about give-and-take). And I don’t think that they did that back in the ’80s.
“I always had fast-enough racecars that I never had to give. I could always take. And that came back to haunt me I guess for a few years there because I was the one getting turned around because I wasn’t giving it up and rightfully so — probably because I didn’t know and didn’t get taught that. So, I’m trying to be better at the give-and-take thing.
“I’ve had problems with other guys who are just as bullheaded as I am and I’m not afraid to say it. A guy like Paul Menard is just that. We race each other hard every time we got around each other. That’s just how we did it. And it was frustrating to both of us, but we made good out of it. We never crashed each other per se, so it was just the way we raced. So, we don’t do that quite so much anymore. We’ve both learned how to adjust to that a little bit and be faster in the end for both of us.”
Dale Earnhardt Jr. (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
STILL GOING Dale Earnhardt Jr. is the only driver in the Cup Series who has completed all 3,888 laps run this season. Matt Kenseth had completed every lap this season entering the Coca-Cola 600 but lost a lap when he had to pit for a loose wheel just past the halfway mark and didn’t make it up before the finish.
Earnhardt’s consistency has helped him score a series-high nine top-10 finishes in the first 12 points races.
He’s looking for more, though.
“We want to win a race,” Earnhardt said after finishing sixth in the Coca-Cola 600. “We want to win so bad we can’t stand it. We’re getting kind of close. It feels good to be competitive. I don’t want to take our consistency for granted, but we would like to improve just a little bit more and get some wins.”
LAST STOP This weekend’s Cup race at Dover marks the final broadcast of the season for FOX. TNT will take over for the next six races, beginning at Pocono. ESPN/ABC then takes over at Indianapolis in late July and broadcasts the rest of the Cup season.
PIT STOPS Red Horse Racing announced Tuesday that it will suspend operations of its No. 7 Truck team due to a lack of funding. John King won at Daytona with that team. Red Horse Racing announced that it will continue to operate the No. 17 entry for Timothy Peters and No. 11 entry for Todd Bodine. ... Cup drivers who won last year but remain looking for a victory this season are: Kevin Harvick, Jeff Gordon, Kurt Busch, Carl Edwards, Clint Bowyer, David Ragan, Marcos Ambrose, Paul Menard, Regan Smith and Trevor Bayne.
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.
“This is so much fun,’’ Mark Martin said after his third-place finish last weekend at Texas Motor Speedway.
Well, the 53-year-old Martin never said he was retiring, just that he wouldn’t race a full schedule years ago when he first cut back.
Car owner Rick Hendrick talked him into returning full-time the past three seasons, but Martin is back to a part-time schedule and enjoying his new ride with Michael Waltrip Racing. It comes as changes in the past year there have made the organization more competitive and likely headed for Victory Lane with either Martin, Martin Truex Jr. or Clint Bowyer soon.
Martin enters this weekend’s race at Kansas Speedway 20th in points although he skipped Bristol and Martinsville. Still, he ranks ahead of 14 drivers who have competed in all seven races this season.
To get a better measure of Martin’s success, though, consider this: His average finish is 10.4 — better than every driver but points leader Greg Biffle (6.0 average finish), Dale Earnhardt Jr. (8.1), Martin Truex Jr. (8.2), Kevin Harvick (9.0) and Matt Kenseth (9.0).
Three top-10 finishes in five starts has helped Martin’s average finish. He’s also completed every lap in all five races he’s run.
“I am just so proud of MWR and all the people there and the teamwork that they have shown there starting with Martin Truex, Jr., who has put so much work into getting the program where it was when we started the season,’’ Martin said. “They really have a lot of great people there with great attitude, great teamwork.’’
It just makes him anxious for the next race.
“There's nothing else that I find quite as much fun as going to work with a great race team with a great attitude,’’ said Martin, a former Kansas Speedway winner. “So it's fun for me to go to every race that I get to go to.’’
Isn’t that what work — or retirement — is supposed to be? Fun.
SHOW ME THE MONEY With the series moving beyond Texas, it ends a significant period for teams. The richest part of the schedule is complete.
While sponsorship money is what drives teams, what they earn in races still matters.
The Daytona 500 is the sport’s richest paying race. Its purse this year was $19,142,601, which will be about $10 million more than any other race pays. The Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway typically is second, at around $9 million.
Other high-paying races early in the season include Texas ($7,132,592 payout this year) and Las Vegas ($6,382,683). The other races thus far with their payouts were: Phoenix ($5,040,864), Bristol, ($5,551,155), Fontana, Calif. ($5,847,881) and Martinsville ($5,009,303).
Last year, Daytona, along with the spring Texas and Las Vegas races, ranked among the top six races in money paid.
Thus, this is a period for teams — especially for small teams who rely more on winnings — to have some money to pay previous or upcoming bills. Since some small teams have little or no sponsorship, what they earn at the track is critical to their survival. It’s a reason why some teams start and park.
If a team made the least amount of money in each of the first seven races, it would have still collected $715,159. Understand that money is used to pay the driver, crew and other expenses from engines to tires to travel costs, so it can go fast, especially if a team is relying on winnings instead of sponsorship to defray costs.
The next race expected to pay out more than $6 million will be the Coca-Cola 600 at the end of May. There wasn’t a race last June that paid as much. With Indy and Daytona ($6,101,344 purse last year) in July, it makes that month a bountiful period for teams.
Last year’s 10-race Chase featured only one race that paid more than $6 million. That was Texas at $6,857,822. Two 2011 Chase races had purses of less than $5 million — Martinsville at $4,851,202 and Phoenix at $4,957,233.
Tony Eury Jr., Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Dainca Patrick (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
DALE JR.’S ADVICE Dale Earnhardt Jr. recently said that he hoped Danica Patrick, who drives for his JR Motorsports team in the Nationwide Series, could keep from putting too much pressure on herself this season.
“That’s pretty darn good advice coming from Dale just because he’s obviously in a pressure situation,’’ Patrick said. “When I would come and do the races over the last couple of years, it wasn’t like there was no pressure but I was on such a learning curve that there was going to be good weekends, there was going to be bad weekends and at the end of the day it wasn’t for a sole championship as one driver. It was a little less pressure for sure.
“Now coming into this year, knowing that it’s for points and knowing that it’s really trying to take it to the next level, I do think that I probably put more pressure on myself. I think that’s great advice to relax. I’m running for the championship, so that pressure, I think, got to me a little bit. What matters is having a good time and having good races and you don’t do that by putting tons of pressure on myself.’’
PIT STOPS Hendrick Motorsports has gone 13 races without a Cup victory, its longest drought since a 15-race winless streak that stretched from the end of the 2002 season to the beginning of the 2003 campaign. ... NASCAR estimated the attendance at Sunday’s Camping World Truck race at Rockingham Speedway as 27,500. While that was an inaugural event — and likely to attract more fans — it was a larger estimate than 12 of the 25 truck races last year, including events at Charlotte, Iowa, Kentucky, Las Vegas and Homestead. ... With speeds nearing 215 mph at a recent Goodyear tire test at the repaved Michigan International Speedway, Matt Kenseth was asked if they were going too fast there. He said: “I don’t think we were going too fast as far as the cars being out of control or not having a good race or anything like that.’’
2012 surprises, tips for the track and listening to NASCAR on SiriusXM Radio
Photo by ASP, Inc.
2012 surprises, tips for the track and listening to NASCAR on SiriusXM Radio
by Dustin Long
A weekend without racing didn’t mean that the Backseat Drivers Fan Council had a break. While offering opinions throughout the season, the Backseat Drivers Fan Council also is here to help fans with tips this week on how to make your experience at the track better.
And oh yes, the Fan Council also is weighing in on a few subjects, including the biggest surprise this season.
TIPS TO MAKE THE RACE MORE ENJOYABLE
With many of the Backseat Drivers Fan Council veterans of numerous races, I asked them what they would tell someone going to the track that they should do to make that event more enjoyable.
Here’s what Fan Council members said:
• Camp... pretty much any track. Camp at least once and walk around; meet and get to know other campers/NASCAR fans. Will meet some of the best people and greatest fans around camping at a NASCAR track. Have met folks over the years that will be lifelong friends and my first time was on a whim at the invite of another friend.
• I would tell any fan going to Indianapolis Motor Speedway to go to the infield and visit the museum along with sitting in turn one during practice or qualifying. The speed is amazing and the sound reverberates off the stands. It's like sitting at the old Yankee Stadium or other places similar.
• 1. The museum at Darlington. 2. Go to a Tweetup! 3. Hit a local short track on Friday night and see where these guys got their starts!
• Pit passes at least once in your life.
• Experience a night race, day races are great but night races have a whole different vibe to them.
• Going to the Driver introductions. It costs extra at most tracks but it is well worth it! Being on the track so close to the drivers, the national anthem and the flyover is incredible from right on the track.
• Go to Jeff Gluck Tweetup. Jeff enjoys meeting the fans & he usually has a surprise.
• When at RIR take an extra day to visit the places of historical interest around the central VA region, the museum of the Confederacy, The Wilderness battlefield, Seven Pines, Tredegar, the state Capitol, St. John's Church, Monticello.
• Eating at Ridgewood BBQ about a mile from Bristol Motor Speedway is a must, if you don’t mind the wait obviously.
• Get a scanner to listen to the drivers. Very entertaining.
• Be prepared to have a long wait after the race to leave the parking area. Just pull out the grill, cook some food and enjoy some cool drinks. After an hour or so you will be able to leave and so you will be behind the cars that left as soon as the race was over. A lot less stress this way & saves gas.
• You have to do the No Limits celebration at Texas. Eddie Gossage knows how to throw a party and entertain people. He always has drivers there and the music and food is awesome.
• Stand with your face on the fence in Turn Four at Daytona when the cars are coming by. Absolutely amazing.
• At Dover, be sure to go a little south and east to see the Delaware Bay and some of the beach communities like Rehoboth and Lewes which are less than hour away. Also some of the best birding in the country is within 15 minutes of the track at Bombay Wildlife and other Wildlife Preserves nearby.
• Since I'm a “people watcher,” I think the hidden gem is studying the fans. Big, small, skinny, fat, half-dressed, over-dressed, beer-swilling, pretzel-stuffing, you name it. It's a study in Americana at the best _ and sometimes the worst. Yet, when standing for the invocation, they take off their hats, they sing along (thankfully at times) with the musical artist struggling with the national anthem, and they erupt in joyous shouts as the jets roar overhead.
Photo by ASP, Inc.
WHAT’S THE BIGGEST SURPRISE OF THIS SEASON?
26.3 percent said Michael Waltrip Racing having all three cars in the top 10 in owners points 22.2 percent said Kasey Kahne 31st in the driver point standings 13.7 percent said Jimmie Johnson and his team having most of their Daytona penalties overturned on appeal 11.3 percent said Hendrick Motorsports winless in the first six races 7.8 percent said Jeff Gordon 21st in the driver point standings 7.5 percent said Dale Earnhardt Jr. second in the driver point standings 4.1 percent said Greg Biffle leading the driver point standings 4.1 percent said Other 2.4 percent said five different winners in the first six races 0.7 percent said no major feuds so far this season
What Fan Council members said:
• This was a tough question to pick just one answer. Dale Jr. 2nd in points, MWR having all three cars in the top 10, Biffle leading points and the 48’s penalties being overturned are all kind of neck in neck.
• I still can’t believe they gave the points back...
• None of the listed options... it was Kevin Harvick announcing DeLana’s pregnancy.
• Poor Kasey, if he didn't have bad luck he wouldn't have any luck at all. I believe he can pull out of his slump, but not sure he will make it in the Chase unless he finds himself in Victory Lane a few times.
• I thought the sport as a whole was going to build on the momentum from a great 2011 season, but to me the opposite has happened and it just feels kind of flat now.
• Tony Stewart picking up 2 wins before the thermometer hits triple digits, If you called that one, then I need you to tell me this week’s winning lottery numbers.
• I think it’s great what MWR has accomplished, their drivers are getting to be 'must' picks instead of risky picks in the weekly fantasy pools. I'm happy for Mikey to begin to see some success. I think they'll soon be somewhat regular visitors to Victory Lane.
• Lack of phantom debris cautions. I was shocked NASCAR has let them go on so many long green runs.
• My biggest surprise is Bristol and Burton Smith announcing that he will change the track.
• Truly, it could be any of these, but for the Hendrick cars to be so incredibly fast and not have the results because of wrecks, blown engines and others’ bad driving just seals it for me.
• Five different winners in the first six races seals the deal as the biggest surprise of the season and we will see more.
ARE YOU LISTENING?
Recently, SiriusXM announced that its NASCAR Channel was being made available to listen to online. Fan Council members were asked if they were listening more to the channel since that announcement.
51.4 percent said they don’t have SiriusXM 32.2 percent said No 16.4 percent said Yes
What Fan Council members said:
• They charge extra $$$ to listen online. Not worth it!!
• Have SiriusXM in my car and at home. Can’t listen to it work or I would be fired.
• I had my SiriusXM subscription before, but am thrilled I won’t miss any of the action at work. I can listen to it on my phone even. I'm so excited to have full time access!!!
• Love it!! Now I don't have to sit in my car in the morning to keep up with Bagley and Pistone.
• Haven’t reactivated yet. Need $.
• THANK HEAVEN & it’s about time!!! Love listening anywhere!!!
• I listen every day now. I spend 75% of my time at home on computer working and have it running in background. Used to only listen when I was in one of my cars.
• A little irritated that I had to purchase a radio and Premium plan but I just have some kind of feeling about this year and I have increased my NASCAR spending to include more races and SiriusXM, etc.
• I bought the service with great expectations but the callers who persist in contacting every show and spewing the exact same monologue have made listening often tedious. I'm not interested in any more of that.
• Still refuse to pay for radio
• I’ve been asking for this for years. I can’t get reception at home or at work so I'm relegated to listening only in my car. Good thing I have a horribly long commute!
Fans can join the Backseat Drivers Fan Council by sending Dustin an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Please include the following information:
Name, city, state, Twitter name, e-mail address and favorite driver.
MWR experiencing banner year in 2012 with revamped driver lineup
Martin Truex Jr. (56) and Clint Bowyer (15). (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
by Vito Pugliese
“I’m sorry guys, I just … can’t drive my racecar …”
Those words, tinged with embarrassment, pain and reservation, served as both the low point and springboard for Michael Waltrip Racing. Sitting in his crumpled Camry on the backstretch at Charlotte after wrecking on his second lap of qualifying for the Coca-Cola 600 in 2007, Michael Waltrip’s transition from racecar driver to team owner was going anything but smooth. From crashing out during time trials and having to head home on Fridays, shoddy performance and reliability, to a divorce and a much-publicized incident that saw him barefoot and beating a hasty retreat from the scene of a tipped over truck, the upstart organization that Waltrip started to coincide with Toyota’s arrival in the Cup Series has long since been referred to as a “second-tier” team.
But, while once said with a bit of condescension and hesitation, it appears safe to finally say it with assurance: Michael Waltrip Racing is for real.
Last year, Robby Gordon deemed his fledgling racing operation “a marketing company that races.” Despite two wins with former driver David Reutimann, that same observation so wryly stated could have been attributed to MWR not that long ago — but no longer. Don’t believe me? Watch any NASCAR race (or NASCAR-related programming), and tell me how many commercial breaks are absent a 5-Hour Energy commercial with Clint Bowyer, a NAPA spot without Waltrip or Martin Truex Jr., or an Aaron’s commercial without Mark Martin and Waltrip.
You’d be hard pressed to find a team owner that is as big a piece of marketing his racing operation as the two-time Daytona 500 champion. Waltrip is now also a commentator alongside Chris Myers during FOX race broadcasts, and last year was one of the hosts of Showtime’s “This Week in NASCAR.” It is that popularity and familiarity with die-hards and casual fans alike that has helped Waltrip’s race team bridge the gap from pretender to contender in the span of a few short years.
MWR suddenly boasts, along with Roush Fenway Racing, perhaps the best-balanced driver line-up in the sport. After Carl Edwards declined overtures from Joe Gibbs Racing in 2011, Bowyer became the next most-eligible driver at the end of his contractual rope. Sponsor 5-Hour Energy came a-calling — which in today’s world of finding a ride is as essential as having a helmet. When Richard Childress Racing could not honor Bowyer’s salary demands, it was MWR that offered him a home, much to the bewilderment of many in the media.
Was one of the hottest properties in NASCAR taking a step backward? After all, it was Bowyer who, after being involved with a wreck with Waltrip at Bristol in 2008, deemed him, “The worst driver in the history of NASCAR. Period.”
Bowyer is a driver who has made the Chase for the Championship three times in his six-year Cup career, as well as a Nationwide Series championship in ’08.
As it turns out, his defection to MWR has been anything but a step backward. His No. 15 has been fast weekly, albeit with a couple of stumbles with some blown tires and wall contact at Phoenix, but has since rebounded with a sixth at Las Vegas, fourth at Bristol, and a 13th in California. Sitting eighth in points, just 38 markers out of first, Bowyer’s Chase chances — and opportunities to win — are materializing quicker than most had suspected.
Think of his team as the No. 5 of Kasey Kahne without the hype or horrendous luck.
Truex has been in a similar situation as Bowyer. Since winning what was the Busch Series championship in 2004 and ’05, his Cup pursuits have been left wanting. He joined what had been Dale Earnhardt, Inc. as driver of the No. 1 Chevrolet as it was devolving from Earnhardt’s business built for his children into a diluted conglomeration of other teams that were both failing and floundering.
Truex has one NASCAR Cup win — a Monday running of a rained-out Dover event on the day that Bill France Jr. passed away — and Chase appearance to his credit, both of which were in 2007. Since joining MWR, Truex has little to show beyond having the most appearances in a commercial break.
However, in the last five races of 2011, Truex and crew chief Chad Johnston strung together four top-10 finishes and built upon that with runs of seventh, third and eighth in 2012. And this from a team that, prior to its hot streak, taped together only three top 5s and 15 top 10s in nearly two seasons.
The Mark Martin/Brian Vickers ride. (ASP, Inc.)
On the other end of the driver spectrum is Martin. The 53-year old veteran who five years ago went to a limited scheduled — then back to a full-time ride with Hendrick Motorsports for three seasons — is now back to a part-time arrangement at MWR. Taking over what was formerly the No. 00 Aaron’s Dream Machine, Martin’s re-branded No. 55 has been perhaps the company’s most consistent force over the first five races of 2012.
Martin was up front for the second half of the Daytona 500 before finishing 10th. The following week he won the pole at Phoenix and was running in the top-three until gremlins in the EFI reared their ugly head and saddled the 55 with a “disappointing” ninth-place finish. Martin was then headed to the front in the closing laps at Las Vegas until he tangled with Dale Earnhardt Jr with a handful of laps remaining, relegating him to an 18th-place showing. His 12th at the Southern California 250 last weekend has him 17th in points — despite taking a week off at Bristol (and the tangle with Junior that cost him 10 points).
Bristol brings us to the other half of the No. 55 story — and a fitting counterpoint to Martin.
It doesn’t seem that long ago that Brian Vickers was winning the Busch Series championship at 20 years of age. Following a one-win stint at Hendrick Motorsports (a controversial win, at that), Vickers too jumped aboard the Toyota train as part of Red Bull Racing’s foray into NASCAR in 2007. Driving the No. 83 Red Bull Camry, Vickers established himself as the lead driver with the most experience for the organization and the face of Toyota in the sport. While it took Red Bull a few years to “get right,” a win and a Chase birth in 2009 was evidence that things were headed in the right direction.
However, just as soon as the quirky newcomers came to the sport, they were gone.
Vickers had his own troubles during this time. A recurring problem with blood clots threatened to derail his racing career (and his life) in 2010. When he returned from near career-ending heart surgery though, it appeared as if “The Sheriff” had some scores to settle. Memorable run-ins with Tony Stewart, Marcos Ambrose and Matt Kenseth last season seemed to doom any efforts made in trying to find a ride once RBR made its exit. In short, Vickers had pissed off just about anybody who was in a position to help him.
When Chevrolet intervened and informed Elliott Sadler he was not to pilot MWR’s Toyotas in Martin’s absence, Vickers found his break. At Bristol two weeks ago, he led 125 laps en route to a fifth-place statement finish. He returns to the scene of last October’s crime this Sunday at the track he and Kenseth traded paint, body panels and barbs — and which nearly proved his undoing in the Cup Series. Instead, he’s offered a chance at redemption (and a legitimate shot at winning) with crew chief Rodney Childers atop the pit box, the same man who built the first go-karts Vickers began his racing career in some 20 years ago.
In the face of continuing difficult economic times, the landscape of NASCAR continues to change. From cars that are so sensitive you dare not tinker with a body panel lest you incur a six-week suspension, to EFI units that go bonkers once the engine gets hot or vibrates too much, to former mega-funded teams that have parked the very cars that got them into the sport in the first place, new teams and drivers are starting to emerge as legitimate weekly contenders. During this time, we’ve also seen virtual unknown teams — Furniture Row Racing, Phoenix Racing — and drivers — Trevor Bayne, Paul Menard — become winners.
After five years fraught with frustration, Michael Waltrip Racing’s three teams are now legitimate contenders with a cadre of drivers who have all had their shared struggles in the sport. It’s a long way to the top in NASCAR, but also a short fall to the bottom, and MWR has had a good view of both during its short time in the series. With the current lineup and early-season momentum, it is on the verge of establishing itself as one of the major forces in NASCAR competition for years to come.