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 oftenâ€¦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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