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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

The Yellow Stripe: The Remarkable Rise of Michael Waltrip Racing

With the honorable exception of David Reutimann, the driver formerly known as the Franchise, it was another very positive weekend for Michael Waltrip Racing at Infineon Raceway this past Sunday; yet more evidence to support the remarkable rise from the ashes of the jet-fuel “first race” debacle at Daytona in 2007. Taking top billing was everybody’s favorite Australian NASCAR driver, Marcos Ambrose, who finished third – a season high – behind race winner Kasey Kahne and Tony Stewart. For the Launceston, Tasmania native, the third-place finish made up for his fine run, but terrible finish at the same track last year, and tied his highest Cup finish, having also come home third at Watkins Glen in 2008.

Equally impressive, was the 11th-place finish for Patrick Carpentier. The French-Canadian knows a thing or two about road racing, sure, and he did drive 24 races for GEM in 2008; but to come in essentially cold, and to run so competitively says something about both the driver and the quality of the equipment he was wheeling around the 12-turn, 1.99-mile course in beautiful Sonoma.

Despite Reutimann’s dismal 31st place run, he’s still only 40 points back from a Chase spot, losing an aggregate of just 37 points on the day. It could have been much worse for Reutimann, who is not known for his road-course prowess, not least when two of his closest Chase position challengers at the drop of the green flag – Kahne and Juan Pablo Montoya – had such fine points days.

Successful weekends are becoming something of a theme for MWR in 2009 – something few could have predicted just two short years ago. And if the rumors are to be believed, an announcement in the next week to 10 days will confirm that Martin Truex Jr. is leaving Earnhardt Ganassi Racing for the friendly confines of Raceworld USA in Cornelius, N.C. Adding a young, experienced, successful driver will only make the company better and stronger on race day. Truex will assume driving duties for the NAPA Toyota, with Waltrip himself vacating the seat. Rumor also has it that Truex will use the No. 22.

Where all this leaves Michael Waltrip is anyone’s guess. It’s a question the man himself probably doesn’t know the answer to, just yet. What is clear is that the owner-driver is not quite ready to hang up the driving shoes just yet. The story is that Mikey is keen to run something in the region of 10 races in 2010, including the Daytona 500. With his inimitable charm and ability to talk the hind legs off the proverbial donkey, I’m sure Waltrip will manage to cobble together a patchwork sponsorship deal. In essence then, MWR might very well be a four-car operation in 2010, albeit with the owner in a part time ride, primed to challenge the really big dog teams in Sprint Cup.

For Waltrip the proposed transition will still be a tough one – despite the fact that his company will be incrementally improved as a result. A veteran of some 740 races, Waltrip’s career began a quarter of a century ago. He finished second to the late, great Alan Kulwicki in 1986 when he ran for Rookie of the Year honors and secured his first top 10 in 1987, but it was not until the fateful 2001 Daytona 500 that he finally broke a zero for 463-race slide with a victory, albeit one that was overshadowed by the tragic death of team owner Dale Earnhardt. Waltrip was forthright at the start of the season knowing he needed to raise his level of performance. He was also clear about what would happen if he didn’t:

“But if I don’t do those things, if I can’t compete at the level that [David] Reutimann does or NAPA expects, then I probably won’t get to do this again in 2010.”

Prophetic words, it seems, if the rumors are to be believed.

So what has changed? Well, for one it’s experience and organization. Waltrip often jokes on “This Week in NASCAR” (a show tailor made for someone as loquacious as the Owensboro, Ky. native) that headed into SpeedWeeks in 2007 the company didn’t even have a photocopier. The point, apocryphal or otherwise, illustrates how far behind the curve the start-up team was at the outset. The build from brass tacks all the way to viable Chase contender, in the case of Reutimann, has been an incremental process. The game changer, however, was the arrival of Rob Kauffman who picked up a share in ownership for an injection of much needed cash. Kauffman’s arrival paid early dividends, so much so that MWR came within three percent of its projected 2008 expenses. “In 2009, we’ll be on budget,” said Kauffman. “We’ll be cash-flow positive. [This] business has to be cash-flow positive.”

Another key factor is the recruitment of Steve Hallam, who joined MWR as Competition Director this off season. The 27-year British Formula 1 veteran, a savvy presence, has added structure to the controlled chaos, and judging by the comments from Waltrip himself, Hallam has already got a very firm grip on the reigns – if not necessarily the language. As Bobby Kennedy, the VP of Race Vehicle Operations points out:

“We got a lot of people that talk funny around here… but they’re making us go faster, too. They bring new thought processes and we’ve closed the gap quick. We’re not there yet, but we can see it.”

With the infrastructure under ever more rigid management, the results on the track have started to come; and nowhere has that been more apparent than with Reutimann who won the rain delayed Coke 600 at the end of May, the company’s maiden Sprint Cup victory.

So after a disastrous first year which included 39 failed qualifying attempts and not even so much as a solitary top five, a much better second year and, so far, a significantly better third season, MWR has rebounded the rockiest of all possible starts with the sort of zest you’d typically associate with the Energizer Bunny.

Yes, the efforts of points leader Stewart and his Stewart-Haas operation have been mighty impressive in 2009, but that Hendrick chassis and engine support sure does help when it’s in the right hands. Waltrip certainly didn’t have the advantages available to Smoke and crew, so in many ways, their efforts this season are every bit as impressive as SHR, if not more so. And regardless of whether Reutimann ultimately makes the Chase, the fact that he has run so handily in 2009, not to mention the impressive debut Cup season for Ambrose and the imminent arrival of Truex, the signs are more than positive for the future of MWR.

Two final points to note

THE RETURN OF THE BACK FLIP

Great to see Cousin Carl win his first race of the season – it’s not been for lack of trying either – at the Milwaukee Mile in Saturday’s Nationwide race. A year ago, a win at the same venue propelled Carl Edwards’s charge from 225 points back to an overall second-place finish for the season, just 21 points shy of champion Clint Bowyer. Today, Edwards sits 127 points behind Kyle Busch but after nine top five finishes including four second-place results, Edwards was simply pleased to be top of the pile. “I’m not going to lie,” he said in victory lane, “It felt really good… It’s been a while since we won a race…” Glad to see, too, he still remembers how to pull off that back flip.

BAD DAY FOR THE BRITS AT THE BRITISH GRAND PRIX

As one of the very few (only) regular British NASCAR columnists, it would be remiss of me not to pass comment on my home country’s F1 Grand Prix held at historic Silverstone (for possibly the last time) this past weekend. Defending race winner and world champion Lewis Hamilton finished a distant 16th in a car that has been horribly uncompetitive all season. Meanwhile, Jensen Button, the unexpected success story of the season, who won six of the first seven races this season, finished sixth following a poor qualifying effort left the home crowd with little to cheer about.