2007 Ride: No. 55 Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota
2007 Primary Sponsor: NAPA Auto Parts
2007 Owner: Michael Waltrip
2007 Crew Chief: David Hyder (February); Scott Eggleston (February – April); Buddy Sisco (April – November)
Stats: 36 races, zero wins, zero top fives, zero top 10s, one pole, 43rd in points.
High Point: Surprisingly enough, the second half of the season saw Waltrip’s team begin to capture a small bit of momentum. In a 10-race stretch from August to November, he failed to qualify just twice, earning three top-15 finishes in the nine races he actually qualified for. One of those happened to be Talladega, always a strong point for Waltrip; and in that fall race, he didn’t disappoint fans by putting together a lap strong enough to get him on the pole.
Low Point: There are so many, it’s hard to know where to begin. Waltrip’s season began with the most notorious cheating scandal in recent history – with a substance widely reported to be jet fuel found in his No. 55 car after qualifying, Waltrip and his team faced some surprising, all-encompassing discipline from the NASCAR brass. Crew chief David Hyder and Vice President of Competition Bobby Kennedy were indefinitely suspended, and Waltrip lost 100 driver and owner points.
The downward spiral simply continued from that point on; there was an 11-race stretch of DNQs following Daytona that lasted from February to June, with Waltrip not making his second race of the season until Dover’s Monster Mile. In all, he failed to qualify 19 times in 33 attempts; things got so bad, Terry Labonte was hired three times specifically for both his road-course prowess and past champion’s provisional – ensuring the No. 55 would make the field at Indy, Sonoma and Watkins Glen.
Summary: Few people were as happy to get 2007 over with than Waltrip; and I’m not just talking NASCAR, I’m talking all Americans. Truth be told, this 20-plus year veteran of the Cup circuit had an absolutely awful year; a partnership with Toyota turned sour quickly due to the cheating scandal above, and the team’s three-car effort never seemed to recover from February through November as a result.
For whatever reason, though, Waltrip appeared to get the worst of it. After a questionable accident involving his SUV midseason, things got to the point where NAPA considered pulling sponsorship of Waltrip’s team; but miraculously, that’s when things started turning around for a No. 55 program that’s the man’s pride and joy. Suffering through a horrific first half, the team improved to make 11 of the final 18 races, at one point putting together a streak of three consecutive top 20s in October/November. It was clear that when the equipment was in place, Waltrip could still drive; things just never seemed to click on that level often enough, though.
2008 Outlook: Despite a nightmarish beginning to his relationship with Toyota, the future over at MWR looks far better than it did even three months ago. After going through a crew chief carousel, Waltrip has hired highly decorated Paul Andrews to assume that role for next season. Winning a championship in 1992 with Alan Kulwicki, Andrews is no stranger to winning and takes pride in turning struggling programs around; Waltrip will be more than thrilled if he makes MWR his next reclamation project.
Additionally, this team stands to benefit quite a bit from Joe Gibbs Racing coming on board with the Toyota program. If Waltrip could continue some of the momentum he gathered in the second half of the year, this team could take some major strides in 2008. The problem will come in making the first five races of this season; should the team skip a beat at any point, Waltrip will again be faced with a qualifying hole with which he’ll have exceptional difficulty recovering from.
2006 Frontstretch Grade: D
2007 Grade: D-
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Editor’s Note: The 2007 season is over, and even the Final Chase exam has come to a close – which means it’s time to give each driver their annual year-end evaluation. For the second straight year, your favorite Frontstretch staff members are giving driver reviews for every full-time wheelman on the circuit, giving you insight into the seasons of anyone from AJ Allmendinger to JJ Yeley. Be sure to keep coming in every weekday this offseason for even more original content on Frontstretch!