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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

2008 Driver Review: Michael Waltrip

2008 Ride: No. 55 Michael Waltrip Racing Holdings LLC
2008 Primary Sponsor: NAPA Auto Parts
2008 Owner: Michael Waltrip
2008 Crew Chiefs: Paul Andrews (Feb. – Mar.); Bobby Kennedy (Mar. – Nov.)

Stats: 36 races, 0 wins, 1 top five, 2 top 10s, 0 poles, 29th in points
Best Finish: Second (Loudon – June)

High Point: Leaving the season finale at Homestead-Miami having competed in the entire 36-race Sprint Cup schedule of events no doubt gave Michael Waltrip and the No. 55 crew both great satisfaction and a sense of progress. Though the accomplishment may seem trivial on the surface, it isn’t for a team that just one year earlier failed to make the show an eye-popping 22 times during the 2007 campaign. Most often on race day, the 45-year-old Waltrip was not particularly competitive, but at least he can hold his head a great deal higher knowing that his team is now good enough to expect to make it to the starting grid.

Low Point: When you have been about as low as a fully-funded team can get after the dismal showing this first-year Toyota team posted in ’07 (44th in points), it is hard to point to a negative for Waltrip in a season that showed a 15-position improvement in the driver points standings. However, Waltrip did bring some unneeded controversy to his vastly improved NAPA Auto Parts Toyota team at Richmond in May when he was “parked” for aggressive driving after Casey Mears slid across the nose of the No. 55 car and pinned it against the turn 4 wall. In retaliation, Waltrip pushed Mears the length of the front straightaway before crashing him into the outside wall in turn 1. NASCAR’s penalty – parking Waltrip for the rest of the 400-lap event – probably cost him in the neighborhood of 60 owner and driver points. That was a major loss for the No. 55 bunch at a time they were pulling out all the stops to not fall out of the Top 35 in owner points.

Summary: 2008 was not a particularly bad year for Waltrip, as his on-track performance improved greatly in respect to his maiden season as a Toyota owner/driver. Even though the two-time Daytona 500 winner did set the bar pretty low after a miserable 2007, improvement within his own organization was notable in a year where many thought his three-car team would wind up waving the white flag of surrender. Instead, Waltrip competed in his 1,000th NASCAR race (top-three series combined) at Atlanta in October to move into second on the all-time starts list – trailing only “King” Richard Petty – while cementing his team’s status on the Sprint Cup level for the foreseeable future.

Team Ranking: Tricky question! When you are the team owner as well as a driver, you probably can say you are number one if you so choose. Remember, Waltrip has survived almost 25 years in the sport – and that’s not solely because of his on-track prowess. Waltrip’s career has transcended mere wins and championships, and instead, he has been able to ingratiate himself with corporate sponsors and their Madison Avenue counterparts which value his commercial appeal as much, if not more, than his expertise behind the wheel of his racecar. Otherwise, if it were simply a matter of results and forward-looking expectations, up-and-coming David Reutimann would no doubt be the premier driver at MWR.

2009 Outlook: There was enough improvement for MWR and the No. 55 team for NAPA to sign back on for a ninth consecutive year of sponsoring Waltrip in 2009. With the continued financial support and the addition of top-level crew chief “Bootie” Barker into the fold, look for Waltrip to continue to improve his finishing positions and become a solid top-20 driver in 2009.

2006 Frontstretch Grade: D
2007 Grade: D-
2008 Grade: C-