The Frontstretch: Michael Waltrip: Sitting Pretty...In The End, That Is by Tommy Thompson -- Tuesday March 20, 2007

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Michael Waltrip: Sitting Pretty...In The End, That Is

Thompson In Turn 5 · Tommy Thompson · Tuesday March 20, 2007


On the heels of a truly dominant 2006 season in the Craftsman Truck Series, Toyota appeared to entertain a belief that they could enter their first season in Nextel Cup on solid footing. With extensive preparation, financing, and support, the manufacturer likely expected to remain on par with their veteran rivals Ford, Dodge and Chevrolet. If so, expectations were set too high and with little regard for the drastically more competitive environment found in Nextel Cup. Though last year’s results in the CTS certainly established the foreign car builder as a “comer,” its success came in a series that had seen a marked decline in support by the other three auto manufacturers. To date, there has been no discernable such retreat from the Nextel Cup Series by the Big Three car builders, and the margin between success and failure has become steadily narrower as a result for Nextel Cup’s rookie carmaker. But those high expectations remained in place, and as the disappointment of losing out has reared its ugly head over time, fingers are now being pointed as to how that failure came to be. All those fingers, it seems, are now landing on one person in particular within the Toyota camp.

Nowhere does the focus of attention for Toyota's slow startup this season seem to be directed more than towards driver-turned-owner Michael Waltrip. It is my belief that has more to do with Mikey's celebrity status than anything related to the "nuts and bolts" of racing. Waltrip is experiencing a common cultural occurrence wherein a fairly large segment of our society takes delight in watching the rise and fall of individuals of note. We have seen examples of this time and time again, and victims of this perverse fascination of observing potential rags-to-riches-to-rags dramas span the gambit of personalities from successful entrepreneurs such as Martha Stewart, entertainers of the Britney Spears variety, politicians, and, quite often…professional athletes.

Waltrip's celebrity status is, for him, a double-edged sword reaping both tremendous reward and the inevitable backlash that comes with his seemingly unlimited media access. His media savvy and ability to promote his sponsors in front of national television audiences has certainly played into Toyota’s desire to have him on board their team. Clearly, there is presently no better personality available at doing just that.

What the 22-year Cup veteran brought with him to Toyota in terms of driving skill is well known. Simply put, no one should expect, or should have ever expected, his transition into a team owner as well as a driver to deliver spectacular on track results. Waltrip has spent the vast majority of his long career as a backmarker, running for the most part in second rate equipment but showing at least an acceptable level of driving ability. At times, like his tenure with Dale Earnhardt, Inc., he has demonstrated a better than average ability at the art of “restrictor plate” racing…but that’s about it. Though not destined to be considered amongst the greats of NASCAR, Mikey, nonetheless, is a solid driver capable of qualifying competitive cars into races and completing them with respectable results.

Whatever Michael Waltrip may lack in driving abilities, though, he should more than compensate for as an owner over time. The affable product promoter is adept at attracting sponsorship dollars to MWR, and sponsorships equate directly into money, the real lifeblood of success in the highest level of stock car racing today. Money will buy you fast cars and good personnel…and that’s what a good driver needs in order to achieve success.

By the same token, Toyota Racing Development’s entrance into Cup racing may not be producing the preliminary results that neither they nor the motorsports world anticipated, but there is no reason not to believe that any initial obstacles in the way of success will ultimately be removed. They have a history of developing championship winning programs in many forms of auto racing, including CART, IMSA, off-road racing, the former Goody’s Dash Series, and even in the aforementioned Craftsman Truck Series. The precedent is there to suggest they will prevail in their latest pursuit, and with Michael Waltrip’s commitment to the manufacturer, he stands to benefit handsomely from his association with Toyota.

When one considers the road that Waltrip is attempting to navigate as a new Nextel Cup team owner as well as a driver, it is pertinent to remember that this road has been traveled before. We saw the 2001 Dodge teams make an impressive debut in their reentry into NASCAR by placing three of their new drivers into the Top 15 at Daytona, moving on to claim three teams in the final Top 15 season-ending point totals. Owner/driver Robby Gordon has also shown, since the advent of the Top 35 rule, that it is still possible to overcome that currently very troublesome impediment for Waltrip and all the other Toyota teams.

Naysayers may be feeling pretty confident in their predictions of failure for Mikey and his organization, but they will, before season’s end, learn that their estimation of the present situation was erroneous. For, as Toyota goes, so will Michael Waltrip. Ultimately, I don’t see failure being a real possibility for either.

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Today on the Frontstretch:
NASCAR Easter Eggs: A Few Off-Week Nuggets to Chew On
Five Points To Ponder: NASCAR’s Take-A-Breath Moment
Truckin’ Thursdays: Top Five All-Time Truck Series Drivers
Going By the Numbers: A Week Without Racing Can Bring Relief But Kill Momentum


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03/21/2007 09:10 AM

Article is dead-on in my opinion. Anybody who thought that Toyota would have instant success in Nextel Cup was a little misguided. The competition amongst teams is more fierce than ever. Also, the division of have and have nots are also greater. The real fact is…the Toyota teams are not that far off from being competitive. Remember, the original engine package was not allowed by NASC@R. The engines have at least been reliable and have finished 2, 500 mile races. Aero and chassis design are where races are won and lost today. That takes time to work through. Not to mention, different tire compounds throwing a curveball at new racing teams. By the end of the year, major improvement will be made. It will take track time to work the problems out. Toyota will due what it takes to win and be successful. It will take some time, patience, good R&D and a lot of money. Throw darts at who you want because of the slow, but predictable start. In the end, MWR and other Toyota teams will be very successful.

David Lyons
03/21/2007 10:26 AM

Right on. Mikey has always gotten the shaft. He will get through this and make the naysayers hate him for his success, but his success will also bring on the unending stream of fair-weather fans.

scott oliver
03/21/2007 11:10 AM

mikey is a great pitch man with a very likeable personality and i enjoy listening to him.facts are facts mikey doesnt have the driving prowess of his brother,then or now.his best chance for success is to hire 2 good drivers for the 44 and the 55 and be an owner.

03/21/2007 12:02 PM

It’s nice to read an article about Michael Waltrip and MWR that has a positive spin for a change. Roush, RCR, Hendrick and all of the other “major” teams all had humble beginnings. It is very ignorant to think that Toyota and their teams would come in and start winning races. They have already started to show signs of improvement and they will only continue to get better. Everyone has seemed more than eager to slam MWR and Toyota for somewhat slow start to the season. But I believe you are right and those people will all eat their words when Toyota works out all of their problems.

Travis Rassat
03/21/2007 12:40 PM

This is one of the most realistic articles I’ve read about the state of Toyota and Michael Waltrip Racing yet. This is quite refreshing compared to the xenophobic attitude that most of the American racing media seems to have embraced. Great job!

This is a massive undertaking for anybody, let alone someone who is still driving – a new 3 car team, with a new manufacturer. If you look at the owner/driver teams out there, how many of them are successful? Robby Gordon is the best comparison currently, and he’s only fielding one car.

As for Toyota, while they are doing very well in the Truck Series now, it took them 3 years to get where they are today. Let’s see where they are 3 years from now in the Cup Series.

Anyway, great article – keep it up!

ross cunningham
03/21/2007 03:25 PM

Mickey is not a racing driver like the Gordon’s, Busch’s, Montoya, Stewart, Kahne, Kenseth, Newman. He is a NASCAR court jester and a shill. I’m happy when he fails to qualify and hope he misses the rest of the races and retires. We are tired of his self-promotion and camera grabbing antics.

03/21/2007 06:00 PM

tommy great way to say Mikey is just another great pr boy, he can sell on tv but can’t race worth a crap, he reminds me of the Anna Kornikova fiasco, good looking but could never win a tournament.

Rick Williams
03/21/2007 09:16 PM

Very insightful, thoughtful article. I’ve gotten tired of reading all the negative stuff. Mikey has done a heck of a job putting this deal together in such a short time. I don’t think Leo or Ross have clue on what it takes to put something like this together. Have either of you ever raced or owned a race car. You sound like wannnabbees to me envious of someone else’s efforts.

03/21/2007 09:33 PM

Nicely stated Leo,
But let’s not forget that “TV” is the ultimate entertainment and the “Official Tool of NASCAR”. With the massive amount of politics surrounding Toyota’s entrance into Cup, I would not be surprised, good racer or not if this thing does a 180 and we see drastic improvement. NASCAR needs to ensure that there revenue generators are not going to be drastically affected by this change.

03/22/2007 01:01 PM

I’ve heard that the engine package for the Toyota is different from the rest of the auto manufacturers, do you know if there is any truth to that ??? If so, talk about an unfair playing field. I don’t imagine that the likes of Hendricks, Roush, or Childress teams would stand for that. Just curious if you know anything or if you could check it out for us fans.

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