While the majority of news media yesterday were trained on the Michael Jackson memorial, there was another announcement being made on the opposite side of the country in Cornelius, N.C., at Michael Waltrip Racing. A new driver is joining the MWR stable in 2010, as Martin Truex Jr. was officially announced as the new full-time driver in the NAPA machine. With the move, he’ll replace the 46-year-old Michael Waltrip, who is stepping away from driving full-time to focus on being an owner.
Waltrip will run at least four races next season, with possibly more should an associate sponsor be secured. He now joins the growing ranks of aging Cup veterans who are opting to partake in the popular “limited schedule” offering rather than continue the perpetual 36-race grind every year. When the opportunity came to turn over the flagship duties to the two-time Nationwide Series champion, it’s clear the veteran didn’t hesitate – but was it the right move?
Waltrip is always a curious case if there ever was one. He came along in the mid-to-late 1980s, as NASCAR was transitioning from a regional sport to one with a national following. Well spoken, affable, and with a motor mouth shared only with his older brother, Waltrip was a sponsor’s dream – which probably afforded him a couple of years here and there with cars that other drivers would simply not have been given. While he didn’t have to make a way for himself as much as his older brother did, he didn’t always have big brother’s support and guidance coming up along the way, either. In fact, Michael Waltrip reminds me a bit of Kyle Petty – walking in the shadow of a last name and trying desperately to live up to those expectations, but at the same time, less obsessed with winning and more than happy to pursue other things along the way.
Some may contend that Waltrip had it a little too easy in his formative years, relying on his last name and influence to keep him in the game. But even if that’s the case, he has more than made up for it with a downpour of obstacles to overcome in recent years. After leaving DEI to start his own team following the 2005 season, Waltrip has endured a divorce, allegations of cheating prior to the 2007 Daytona 500, and a bizarre incident that saw him fleeing the scene of a rolled-over SUV in his socks later that year. All the while, the man was sinking himself over $20 million in debt while in the process of trying to put together a race team that actually got to race, not just tow their pretty trailers out of the track early on Friday evening.
So, what does all of this have to do with Martin Truex Jr.? Their stories are somewhat related, if not completely intertwined.
While Truex was winning Nationwide Series titles in 2004 and 2005 for Dale Earnhardt Inc., Waltrip was in the midst of closing out his tenure at DEI. From 2001-2005, Waltrip scored four wins, including a pair of Daytona 500s in 2001 and 2003, before things went south in his last two years with the program. Ironically, Waltrip’s departure following the ’05 season paved the way for Truex to move up to Sprint Cup competition and become the new No. 2 – even though he was No. 1 – at DEI.
Meanwhile, the organization Waltrip left to create his own (DEI, now EGR) appears now to be passing MWR on the way up and down. It’s something no one would have ever expected, especially considering how they got there was a long, bumpy road to say the least.
In 2007, Michael Waltrip Racing was nothing short of an unmitigated disaster. Picture the Hindenburg clipping high voltage lines, then striking an iceberg chock-full of baby penguins and you’ll get the idea. He qualified for the Daytona 500, then nearly got himself thrown out for using an illegal fuel source (hey, I thought alternative energy was all the rage), only to then miss qualifying for the next 11 events. After chasing his car halfway down the backstretch during qualifying at Lowe’s Motor Speedway for the Coca-Cola 600, an exasperated and deflated Waltrip radioed to his crew from his crumpled Camry, “I can’t drive my racecar.”
Things, however, were a bit rosier for Truex Jr. at this same time. Shortly after it was announced that Dale Earnhardt Jr. would be leaving the company his father founded, Truex was suddenly at the forefront of the organization, and won his first race at Dover in June, propelling him to a spot in the Chase for the Championship in only his second season of full-time Sprint Cup competition. Later that summer, it was announced that DEI would be acquiring Ginn Racing, adding an impressive array of equipment that had recently been purchased from the real estate developer. With Mark Martin coming along to drive the flagship No. 8 for 2008, things looked like they were going to be OK at DEI post-Junior after all.
Not so fast.
Truex would go winless in ’08, missing the Chase. During this time, the ground at DEI began to get a bit shaky. Paul Menard would not be back, choosing instead to head to Yates Racing – and more importantly, taking his Menards sponsorship with him – while Martin was lured out of his part-time gig to return to full-time competition at Hendrick Motorsports. This left Truex as the lone car at DEI, with Aric Almirola as his teammate in the No. 8 – albeit with no secured sponsorship.
Meanwhile, across the way in Cornelius, N.C., MWR rebounded – though when you’ve hit rock bottom, there really is nowhere else to go but up. Waltrip finished last year 29th in points with a pair of top 10s, including a second-place finish in the rain-shortened June race at Loudon. His teammate David Reutimann was on his way to earning the nickname “The Franchise” with four top 10s and a pole-winning run at Homestead to close out the year.
MWR also has the distinction of proving unequivocally the safety and durability of the Car of Tomorrow, enduring Michael McDowell’s harrowing wreck during qualifying at Texas Motor Speedway. While that may not show up on any stats sheet, those images are etched in the minds of race fans everywhere for years to come.
As the 2009 season began, the auto industry was being turned on its ear. DEI was suddenly no longer a tangible entity – it merged with Chip Ganassi Racing, and was renamed Earnhardt Ganassi. Truex had a new teammate in Juan Pablo Montoya, but by then the face of the team he signed to drive for just a few years earlier had morphed into something completely different. This, coupled with Chevrolet being forced to pull the majority of their motorsports funding, made his future clouded at best, bleak at worst, and impossible for him to resign with EGR. Truex made light of this in yesterday’s announcement saying, “there were too many unknowns to make a long-term deal.” With GM going bankrupt and not able to fund their race teams, sticking around on the Titanic of NASCAR teams didn’t seem like the ship to be on.
To quote Paul Rudd’s character Kunu in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, “When life gives you lemons, just say >expletive< the lemons… and bail!”
A couple of years ago, Truex’s move would have been considered career suicide. Leaving one of the best rides in motorsports to join up with a driver who many considered to have his best days behind him – and with an upstart car company whose arrival was less than roundly applauded – would have raised an eyebrow or two. But if you move ahead to 2009, it looks to be possibly the smartest move Truex has made since originally joining DEI to drive its Nationwide cars back in 2004.
So far this year, MWR has earned its first win in the Coca-Cola 600, the same race where it hit such a low point just two years prior. Reutimann’s No. 00 car sits 14th in points, just 74 out of Chase contention on the strength of that win, two poles and five top-10 finishes. Not too far behind is the satellite operation of the JTG Daugherty Racing No. 47 driven by Marcos Ambrose, clocking in with five top-10 finishes as well. And while Waltrip himself is languishing in 34th in points, he is still in the Top 35, which, if he can maintain his position, will pay big dividends for Truex in 2010. As you might expect, the points from his No. 55 machine will transfer directly to Truex Jr.’s No. 56.
With Waltrip stepping out of the car, he begins a new chapter in his career that began nearly 25 years ago in 1985. Coming up in the shadows of his older brother Darrell Waltrip – a legend in the sport – he had some awfully big shoes to fill. While some have often criticized Waltrip, saying that if he would only drive as fast as he talks, he would have won a lot more races and possibly even a championship by now… the fact remains he’s enjoyed more success than many.
He has two Daytona 500 wins on his resume, which is a lot more than 99% of the field today can claim. And while Waltrip might not have set the record books on fire behind the wheel, I do see him following in the footsteps of Richard Childress. MWR may not have won a championship or a ton of races yet, but the business sense of its owner, his communication skills and the ability to work with people and build relationships are strong suits for the company – ones that will serve as the main contributors to its growth in the future.
Besides, Waltrip still gets to run those four plate races each year. And with the right combination and a little luck, maybe he can join Tony Stewart as another owner/driver who gets to wheel his own car into victory lane before too long.