NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Happy Hour: It May Be Time to Panic for Michael Waltrip

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.

46 races later, 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 once again. In 2008, Waltrip has made it into every race, but has not finished higher than 23rd at Bristol. At least on a per-race basis, the No. 55 car has gotten worse.

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 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 Motorsports closed its doors. Phoenix Racing is not on the entry list very often. Bill Davis Racing 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 10 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 MWR, 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 MWR: 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 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 Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s fans spew everybody… we’ve all been there. Someday it will be Busch’s fans’ turn.
  • Memo to Busch and Earnhardt Jr., (and cc: Gordon, Edwards, Mark Martin and 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 first, third and fourth last week with Junior, Busch and Martin; instead I ended up with second, third 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.
  • 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 No. 24 car.
  • I remember watching the Ricky Craven-Kurt 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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