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.