NASCAR Race Weekend Central

2009 Season Review: Michael Waltrip

2009 Ride: Michael Waltrip Racing No. 55 Toyota
2009 Primary Sponsor: NAPA Auto Parts
2009 Owner: Michael Waltrip
2009 Crew Chief: Robert “Bootie” Barker (Feb. – Aug.), Gene Nead (Sep. – Nov.)

Stats: 34 Races, 0 wins, 0 top fives, 2 top 10s, 0 poles, 6 DNFs, 33rd in points
Best Finish: 7th, twice (Daytona 500, Talladega – fall)
Average Finish: 27.1

High Point: Michael Waltrip and team had to have left the season-opening Daytona 500 feeling pretty good after a solid top-10 finish to start off the third year in existence for the heavily Toyota-supported team. In fact, the first two races of 2009 had to be satisfying for Waltrip, as he posted a 15th-place run at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., the following weekend – ranking him seventh in points to start the year. Considering that just a year ago, Waltrip and his second-year team were 29th in the standings, he had to feel they’d made significant progress towards becoming more competitive on a weekly basis.

Low Point: It’s hard to say exactly when the realization set in with Waltrip that 2009 was nothing more than another disappointment for the Owensboro, Ky. native. Following that surprising start, over the next 11 races he only recorded one finishing position better than 21st (a 13th in race No. 6 at Martinsville) and steadily slipped 25 positions in the rankings to 32nd in both driver and owner points. By the end of that slump, Waltrip’s hopes of a good year had faded, as the realization set in he’d spend the rest of his final full-time season just fighting to keep his Top-35 status in owner points.

Summary: Unfortunately for Waltrip, the statistics speaks for themselves as his full-time Sprint Cup career ended with a whimper, not a bang. Indeed, it is impossible to put a positive slant to the 2009 season for the 46-year-old veteran. Neither the driver nor his team showed any year-to-year progress, despite the notable progression of teammate David Reutimann and MWR’s “satellite car” manned by Marcos Ambrose. The truth is, for Waltrip 2009 was a step backward over 2008, when he and his then-second year crew scored a top-five finish and two top 10s en route to a respectable 29th-place run in the overall standings.

In contrast, as this year went on – especially after announcing his pending semi-retirement in midsummer – Waltrip and his No. 55 Toyota transformed into little more than a “field filler.” Only 10 times in 34 starts did Waltrip finish on the lead lap, and another 10 times he finished more than two laps behind the leaders. He also collected six DNFs, with three due to engine failure while the other three came as a result of heavy damage from collisions. Waltrip often times seemed to be a fish out of water, unable to control his racecar while frequently scraping walls and spinning out.

2009 Team Ranking: Considering that Waltrip is the majority owner of Michael Waltrip Racing, it could be argued that he is the “head honcho” in the two-car stable if he says so. However, performance-wise Waltrip takes a seat way at the back of the bus to teammate Reutimann (and if you throw Ambrose in the mix, he slips to number three).

Unlike his boss, Reutimann has shown steady improvement during three years with MWR. In his inaugural season of 2007, the driver of the No. 00 Toyota struggled along with the then-new to the sport manufacturer and the start-up Cup Series team, finishing 39th in points. But he’s progressed nicely after that, finishing 22nd in points in ’08 and then, after competing for a Chase berth for two-thirds of the season, ending 2009 in 16th. “The Franchise,” as he is called in the MWR shop, also won two poles and gave the team its first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series victory at the Coca-Cola 600 in May.

Off-Track News: In a second off-track accident since April of 2007, in late October Waltrip was cited by Mooresville, N.C. police following a collision involving himself and a motorcyclist. Police ticketed Waltrip, who was driving an SUV, for failure to yield, and the official police report stated he was given a filed sobriety test that he passed. Said Captain Phil Blocker of the Mooresville Police Department, “He did not meet the criteria for the DWI; however, it was indicated as a contributing factor… on the accident report.”

In early July, Waltrip also made it official that he was semi-retiring from the Sprint Cup Series and would only run a limited schedule of events in 2010. The move was largely expected after struggling behind the wheel of his self-owned car for several years.

2010 Outlook: Originally, Waltrip had hoped to run 10-12 Cup events and a full Nationwide Series schedule in 2010. However, the latest information from the team is that funding has only been secured for the four restrictor plate races next year. But no matter how many times he ends up on the racetrack, the personable Waltrip will be highly visible off it as he continues as part of the SPEED Camping World Truck Series broadcast team.

Considering that Waltrip has survived as a full-time driver with limited success for 24 years, it would come as no surprise if he drums up the needed financial support he is looking for to run more Sprint Cup Series races and/or campaign full-time on the Nationwide circuit in 2010. He is about as good as anyone at recruiting and endearing himself to corporate sponsors… and has been doing it for a long time.

However, should Waltrip be restricted to competing on track at only the Talladega and Daytona races, his status as a car owner remains a high-profile gig. Martin Truex Jr. will join MWR next year driving the newly-renumbered No. 56 NAPA Toyota, and, of course, Reutimann is returning to once again chauffeur the No. 00 Aaron’s Dream Machine. Count on Waltrip not being far from either one of those cars on race day….

2006 Frontstretch Grade: D
2007 Grade: D-
2008 Grade: C-
2009 Grade: D

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