The Frontstretch: It May Be Time to Panic for Michael Waltrip by Kurt Smith -- Friday May 9, 2008

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It May Be Time to Panic for Michael Waltrip

Kurt Smith · Friday May 9, 2008

 

A year and a half ago, Michael Waltrip was successfully wooing employees, a very eager foreign auto manufacturer, and several high profile sponsors to sign onto his new racing team. The pundits predicted that with the backing of both Toyota and cash-rich sponsorship, Michael Waltrip Racing was going to be a contender in Sprint Cup right away, maybe even winning a race or two.

Forty-six races later, Michael Waltrip’s three Cup teams are barely in the Top 35—and that is an improvement over last season. Two major sponsors, Burger King and Domino’s, have departed. Another, UPS, is very likely on its way out, leaving only the ever-loyal NAPA and Aaron’s, at least for now. Performance that is well below the expectations of big sponsors and a heavily invested automobile brand, combined with ethical incidents raising questions about his leadership, have led to the current bleak situation for Waltrip’s team. So as usual, the pundits were wrong.

Performance has been the obvious main problem at MWR. In 2007, Dale Jarrett missed 12 races, and could have missed as many as 18 without his champion’s provisional, a large reason why he was brought onto the team. Jarrett’s six provisionals were all used up after just nine races. And when he did make the field, he wasn’t frightening anyone. His highest finish was a 17th at Homestead, one of just three finishes inside the Top 25. In 2008, Jarrett limped into retirement with similarly unimpressive results in five races.

Waltrip himself has struggled far more mightily. With no provisional to fall back on, he made just 14 races in 2007. He did score four Top 15s, including 10th place finishes at Michigan and Charlotte, but most of the time the No. 55 finished in the 30s. The No. 55 team has also had to put Terry Labonte in the car for road courses and Indianapolis, to employ the past champion’s provisional rule once again. In 2008, Waltrip has made it into every race, but he has not finished higher than a 23rd at Bristol. At least on a per-race basis, the No. 55 car has gotten worse.

Performance has been the obvious main problem at Michael Waltrip Racing, but has it been so poor that it is time to panic?

The NAPA Toyota has been running so beneath expectations that for the past year or so, Waltrip has had to endure the indignity of NAPA commercials that poke mean-spirited fun at his performance or lack thereof, something that I doubt Jeff Gordon or even Dale Jarrett would tolerate no matter how poorly they were running. That makes Waltrip a tremendously good sport, but it also suggests that he owes NAPA big time for their loyalty.

The team’s best performer has been the relatively unknown David Reutimann. He made 26 races last year, finishing 29th in the standings and guaranteeing six races for 2008. In 2008, Reutimann hasn’t finished higher than 18th. If Carl Edwards becomes available, that won’t be good enough to convince UPS to stay.

And rookie Michael McDowell isn’t likely to turn it around…in five races his highest finish is a 26th, at both Martinsville and Talladega.

It may appear as though MWR is showing improvement in 2008, but part of the reason for their making the races, at least, has been attrition of smaller, underfunded teams. Morgan-McClure closed its doors. Phoenix Racing is not on the entry list very often. Bill Davis shut down both the No. 36 and the short-lived program for the No. 27 car when it failed to qualify for Daytona. The Richmond race had only 47 entries, Talladega only 46, and Darlington will have just 45. It is easier for all to make the field. MWR may be competing more frequently, but they haven’t been performing much better.

With three wins already this year in ten races, Joe Gibbs Racing has proven beyond the shadow of a doubt that Toyota isn’t the problem. It would be one thing if any of MWR’s cars were driving for single-car teams with small time occasional sponsorship and limited resources, but those conditions are hardly the case here. MWR has had the best of the best available to them.

As if the performance on the track wasn’t causing the team enough trouble, questionable ethical incidents have clouded this team from the very beginning.

Right off the bat at Daytona last year, the No. 55 team was busted for an illegal fuel additive, one of the gravest sins a team can commit. The timing couldn’t have been worse, with NASCAR having pronounced a new and tougher stance on cheating. The sport came down hard on the team, the crew chief and the owner, Waltrip’s wife Buffy. Waltrip accepted the penalty and expressed remorse about his daughter asking why he was cheating, but to this day has not figured out what happened, or at least has not revealed as such publicly. His crew chief David Hyder would eventually leave the team with no comment.

It would be ludicrous to suggest that MWR is unique in having been caught for rule violations. Hendrick Motorsports especially has a legendary history of pushing the envelope. But that this happened in the new team’s very first race, and that it was among the most egregious of rule violations, immediately shined an unflattering light on the team’s owner and damaged his likeable nice guy reputation.

While the fuel additive mystery was still being talked about—and while still sitting at minus 27 points after the 100-points Daytona penalty and no successful qualifying efforts since—Waltrip flipped his street car over late one evening on his way home. According to a witness, he walked the rest of the way home in his socks even though the witness told him that 911 had been called. He was charged with reckless driving and leaving the scene.

It was never proven that he was drinking, and I am not accusing him; but he certainly would have had plenty to lose from a DUI with sponsors that were already sticking their necks out plenty for him.

Add to this “Sway Bar Gate”. Earlier this year, Jack Roush publicly stated that a sway bar had been stolen from his garage, and that he suspected it was taken for “industrial espionage”. The guilty party turned out to be Michael Waltrip Racing, and Waltrip immediately went into public-relations mode, with a series of “I don’t know what happened” statements. He said that the sway bar ended up in their garage by mistake, a dubious claim given Roush’s assertion that the custom paint had been sandblasted off the sway bar when it was returned.

It’s difficult to understand how he could both not know what or how it happened and at the same time confidently assert that it was accidental.

Waltrip did not know how his own car’s fuel was tampered with, nor did he know how a rival team’s sway bar ended up in his garage for several months. If Waltrip is telling the truth about his lack of knowledge of both incidents, then he needs to hire an informant to keep an eye on his staff.

It’s not really an ethical issue, but I strongly suspect that Waltrip or someone in his organization has instructed his drivers to block race leaders when they are about to be lapped, to keep the car and sponsor on TV. At the Bristol night race last season, Waltrip ferociously raced Kasey Kahne for about a dozen laps, despite the fact that he was two laps down. At Atlanta earlier this year, Kyle Busch was cruising towards an easy win—which would become the first for MWR’s own manufacturer—when Jarrett, running 26th and two laps down, blocked him for several laps. At Martinsville, McDowell raced his darndest to hold up Jeff Burton and several others for the last few laps of the race, much to the normally mild-mannered Burton’s great annoyance. McDowell was also running 26th and it was far too late in the race to be concerned about getting a lap back.

Holding up the leader when there is nothing to gain from doing so is legal, but it isn’t very gentlemanly racing, and it isn’t going to win Michael and his team any friends on the racetrack. It also betrays the ultimate problem at Michael Waltrip Racing: that no matter how adept a driver is at sponsor-friendliness—and to his credit, Waltrip has made quite a career out of it—a team can only go so far on charm. Those incidents may have been well-intentioned efforts to thank the team’s sponsors, but they also reminded everyone that MWR’s cars aren’t on TV very often.

Then the Richmond incident with Casey Mears called his image into question again. Plenty of drivers have lost it on the track at some time, but pushing another car halfway down a straightaway is downright dangerous, no matter how warranted it may be. Not to mention that blaming it on a stuck throttle over the radio probably didn’t make his auto parts provider sponsor very happy.

Waltrip hasn’t really accepted responsibility for the actions that got his car parked. On “This Week In NASCAR” following Richmond, he conceded only that he “lost his cool” (although Chad Knaus was there to call it a “temper tantrum”), and even took Casey Mears and his spotter to task on the show, after he had more than made his point on the track.

Waltrip was fortunate to have another tiny little track skirmish that night take over the next day’s headlines. He was still his affable self on This Week, but not nearly as many people saw that as had seen the Richmond incident (highest Richmond ratings ever), and his nice guy image is taking some hits for it. His actions at Richmond were not those of a happy-go-lucky, easygoing fellow. Michael Waltrip isn’t a thug, but he isn’t a saint either. And the more his less personable, indignant side is revealed, the more trouble he may get into with NAPA.

It’s difficult to conceive that MWR will be able to continue to compete at this level and still maintain the support of their remaining sponsors and Toyota. Unless things improve drastically and quickly on the track, and there aren’t any more occurrences removing the shine from Michael’s halo, the team may very soon find itself in a situation similar to Petty Enterprises, desperately trying to stay afloat in the unforgiving business that is auto racing.

Not all is lost. Waltrip is still one of the more marketable drivers in the sport, even with his days of occasionally respectable finishes at DEI long gone. He has probably starred in more commercials than champions Matt Kenseth, Kurt Busch, and Bobby Labonte combined. NAPA left a team that was putting up decent if not remarkable numbers to join Waltrip not only at a third-tier Bill Davis team but also at his own venture. It didn’t seem like a bad business decision at the time, in fact it looked obvious. Now NAPA may be wondering what they were thinking, but it still could turn out well for them, if Waltrip can get things together.

The bright side for Waltrip is that there doesn’t seem to be much worse that could go wrong. His team hasn’t been and still isn’t challenging for strong finishes, his sponsors are bailing, and he is uncharacteristically losing his cool on the racetrack.

It will take a mammoth effort for his and his team’s fortunes to improve, but at least there is little direction to move in but up.

Kurt’s Shorts

  • OK, Tom Bowles forbade me from devoting an entire column to the Richmond incident that everyone else is already talking about. But I have to say something. Look, every driver’s fans get PO’d when their driver gets wrecked, especially when they’re leading late in the race. So let Junior’s fans spew everybody…we’ve all been there. Someday it will be Kyle Busch’s fan’s turn.
  • Memo to Kyle Busch and Dale Earnhardt, Jr., (and cc: Jeff Gordon, Carl Edwards, Mark Martin and Casey Mears): I understand that all of you want to win races, but since you are all on my fantasy team, please try not to wreck each other doing it. I could have had 1st, 3rd, and 4th last week with Junior, Busch and Martin; instead I ended up with 2nd, 3rd, and 15th…still enough to win in my division for the week, but it could have been better! P.S. Thanks for the great work so far this season.
  • They’re talking about 200 MPH speeds at the newly paved Darlington, so this is going to be pretty darned interesting. But now does this mean there won’t be Darlington stripes during this race? I sure hope not.
  • Jeff Gordon won at the track Too Tough to Tame last year with a racecar that was spewing water like a geyser. What a difference a year makes. Haven’t even seen champagne spewing near the 24 car.
  • I remember watching the Craven-Busch battle five years ago and just thinking, “Holy crap”. That’s it, just “Holy crap.”

Thanks for reading Happy Hour…enjoy the newly blacktopped Lady in Black.

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hank lee
05/09/2008 01:07 AM
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Wow, I’m a MWR fan and I know our situtation is bad. But to actually say those guys racing the leader hard is to get the sponsor on tv, that’s foolish. McDowell was ont he lead lap and Martinsville, and Kyle Busch nearly wrecked Dale on the last lap.

Also, the incident at Richmond was definitely Michael’s fault and he said he probably should have been parked. But the fact that Mears just drove him into the wall was outrageous at the same time.

Jeff
05/09/2008 07:05 AM
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WOW! I’m not a MWR fan, and after reading this I think the best thing he can do is sell the team ASAP! Maybe sombody with some money and some business experience can save it!!

Douglas
05/09/2008 07:16 AM
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Quote: “gentlemanly racing”????

Did you really say that?

Who are you to make a comment about “gentlemanly racing”?

Does that term cover the entire “field”, on every race day?

If so, then why single out Michael??

We could of course start with Dale Sr.! How would you describe his “revered” driving style?

And please remember, a driver is a driver, whether he is a winner or loser, just yet another driver!

“Gentlemanly driving”?

Must be nice to sit behind a keyboard and think up sick descriptive terms and apply them randomly to whatever driver you want to showcase for the day!

Oh! And just who makes the call to a particular driver: “Hey driver! Move over and let the car behind you pass! Please give up your (precious) track position! I know, I know, it’s only money, position, and points”!

And!! In closing! That really sums up the racing in NA$CAR anyway!

Moving billboards! Nothing more! Nothing less!

Mike In NH
05/09/2008 07:52 AM
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I have to think the MWR drivers are driving for every point they can get at this point, since all three occupy the 30-35 range in the owners points, but in general the slower cars will move aside fairly quickly for the leaders, and the MWR cars should do the same.

Maybe MWR should see if they can get their engines from JGR, like Haas gets its engines from Hendrick – they just don’t seem to have the horses that the JGR cars do. That way they can concentrate more on handling. But you’d think that the millionaire investor MW landed last year must be getting a bit concerned at this point – he didn’t invest to see two major sponsors – BK/Dominos is one company – leave without a replacement in sight (though there are rumors about Office Depot coming on board an MWR car).

His team needs wins to make people forget about the potential ethics issues (winning cures everything).

Wayne
05/09/2008 08:24 AM
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It’s about time someone told the truth about MW.He gets a huge free pass by FOX/ SPEED because of his big mouth brother. Time for him to sell and find a new job, not on TV.

patex
05/09/2008 09:03 AM
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700 races and 4 wins. Duh
it is amazing that the guy is in nascar. I say
send mikie and his obnoxious brother back home. since when is BS
afactor to stay in racing
at it’s highest level??

Dee
05/09/2008 09:14 AM
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Sheesh you all but have MWR buried with the first shovel of dirt thrown on top of them. JGR is a established race team and they were expected to do well. MWR is still getting off the ground, last year was a disaster and the #55 has not done as well as they would like, DR has run great but had engine problems, UPS would do well to stay with him, McDowell is getting his feet wet, but has great talent. I respect writers who do not show a obvious dislike for a certain driver, so I have NO respect for you, your article about MWR was really below the belt, really a low class article, and if you are the offical columnist of Nascar, I feel sorry for Nascar and I am not even a big MWR fan, but your hate for him really shows, some of things said were a personal attack. If Nascar is to stay healthy, we all better hope that teams like MWR and Petty stay in business or it will just be a four team race and just watch the fans leave then.

Geoffrey
05/09/2008 09:29 AM
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Right on. The whole blocking the leaders for TV time is right on the money. I’ve been angry about this for almost 2 years now. Glad you pointed it out for showing why some of us have lost ALL respect for a guy who used to be fun to watch.

dawg
05/09/2008 11:06 AM
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It’s amazing to me that any credible sponsor would wish to be associated with them.Their entire corporate
culture seems to be summed up in three words. Lie, Cheat, & Steal. This entire organization sprung up full grown, like a mushroom. after a spring rain. I expect it to go away just as quickly. Ala Ginn Racing.

Chris
05/09/2008 12:02 PM
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You know, I really think that MWR needs to get together with the people at JGR to find out what they’re doing and what parts they’re using. Mikey may also want to consider the possibility of needing to do what Richard Childress did long ago and step out of the car and be a full time team owner. There are plenty of talented drivers, both veterans and rookies who he can get to drive for him. He’d be better off spending his time running the team. Heck, if it works then maybe Kyle Petty might finally do the same as well. PE needs Kyle in the office more than in the 45 car.

Kenneth
05/09/2008 12:07 PM
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I wonder if the addition of JGR has stretched TRD too thin for the other ‘yota teams. Last year sans JGR, most of the Toyotas showed at least a hint of promise at times (except the 44 and 84), whereas this year it has been basically the #83 out of the non-JGR teams and that’s it. Another indicator of that is Toyota putting 3 cars in the top 5 spots at Talladega qualifying (where it’s basically horsepower and that’s it), yet the #22 and #96 missed the show being beat (again, almost entirely by motor only) by among others, Sterling Marlin in the 09, Kyle Petty in the 45, and Jon Wood in the 21.

Steve Cloyd
05/09/2008 12:20 PM
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This just in; the blue flag means get the hell out of the way.

They should start enforcing that rule.

Douglas
05/09/2008 02:00 PM
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Hey “dawg”“!!

When you say “lie, cheat, & steal”!! Are you actually referring to Hendrick Motor-sports??

After all, year in, year out, Hendrick Motor sports has the blackest eye of all!

(maybe Jr. realizes unless you cheat you don’t win, thus moved over to the Hendrick camp!!)

Justin
05/09/2008 02:08 PM
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In reading your article, the thing that became the clearest to me is that you sir have no idea about motorsports, what happens on and of the track, or business. It is imbecilic of you to have written an article that personally attacks someone who is trying his best to make a go of a business.
Equally as evident in reading this article is the fact that there are elementary students that could write a less objective article about their school bully.

Crockett
05/09/2008 03:33 PM
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Excellent Article

MWR is dead they just don’t know it yet.

I imagine DW is the reason MW is on every Fox/Speed show – Talk about over exposure!!

Goodbye Mikey

Frank
05/09/2008 04:29 PM
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Very nice article, clear and concise. Sorry, all you Mikey lovers out there, but MW has reached as far as his talent level will take him. Reutimann is faster and is the real star of the team. MW is vastly over-rated, despite having big brother sing his praises. Give credit to Toyota, they realized that with MWR as their “name” team, they were nothing but a joke, and they took action ASAP to bring a team capable of winning into the fold. I’m not a Mikey hater but I will say that I’m sick of seeing him every time I change the channel. 30+ in the standings will not sell a lot of parts for NAPA.

Ken in Va.
05/09/2008 05:33 PM
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MW’s 15 minutes of fame was up years ago. Sent the twerp and his big brother away to somewhere we don’t have to listen to them. Driver/owners need talent and/or integrity to stay in business. Michael has neither. Take his big mouth away and you have a big empty suit left. PLEASE leave.

Tracy
05/09/2008 10:21 PM
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I believe JGR has its own engine builder. MWR does not get engines from JGR, but from TRD. Every JGR driver thanks the engine buider by name after winning, have you noticed?

mike ravesi
05/10/2008 08:18 AM
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I think you could certainly take the old adage “so much has been made of someone who has done so little for so long” and definately apply it to Michael Waltrip…….

Tom
05/10/2008 12:26 PM
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When Toyota signed with MW, I knew they were not serious about winning. My, were they fooled by his by his slick words. Then they redeemed themselves by getting serious and signing Gibbs. MW’s company is worth .10 on the dollar, all a bunch of hot air…

Marc
05/10/2008 04:56 PM
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If Michael wants to save the team, I think he should step out of the car and get a hot driver, a real lead foot, another Kyle Busch. That way Mikey concentrates on running the operation and that is all. Others have tried the dual role of ownership and driving, and for the most part, failed. There is no shame in admitting he is not a top level driver. Please let him be a car owner and not a TV commentator.

Kasey
05/12/2008 04:10 PM
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All the sleezy Waltrips need to GO AWAY

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