For a long time, Michael Waltrip was considered to be the greatest Cup driver to have never won a race. It’s a moniker no racer wants to have, but with over 400 starts and 15 years of NASCAR competition under his belt, it fit no one better. Along with his likeable, humorous personality and seeing how his brother Darrell had achieved so much success in the sport, it was easy to be sympathetic towards the younger Waltrip and many wanted to see him make a breakthrough.
He finally picked up that first points-paying victory 11 years ago, in the Daytona 500 of all races. It was supposed to be one of the greatest moments in NASCAR; however, the world would soon learn of the passing of Waltrip’s car owner and friend, Dale Earnhardt in a crash on the final lap. He had finally won, but never got to celebrate; the sympathy continued.
In the following years, Waltrip would go on to win three more races, including the 2003 Daytona 500, and finally had his chance to soak in the taste of victory. With four wins now under his belt, Waltrip was no longer the sympathy-drawing underdog he once was. That likeable, funny personality slowly started to morph into an arrogant, sponsor-plugging machine who talked just to hear himself speak.
Waltrip ventured into an ownership role at the start of the 2007 season. Diehard race fans were already upset with a choice to team up with Toyota to field his cars. Toyota, a Japanese import, was the first foreign manufacturer to join the series in over 50 years and its presence would not be a welcome sight in a sport that had long been a part of the culture in the Southern U.S. Things hit rock bottom before the season even officially started during Speedweeks at Daytona, when NASCAR officials discovered jet fuel in the engine of Waltrip’s car. He received one of the stiffest penalties in the history of the sport, losing 100 driver and owner points. Whether he knew about the substance in his car or not, critics had already formed their own opinions and labeled Waltrip as a cheater.
Waltrip’s first several years as car owner were tough, to say the least, and he was almost forced to fold the team at one point. However, six races into the 2012 season, MWR is having its best start yet as an organization, and it’s a good time to pull for the two-time Daytona 500 winner again. Pulling for his success as a car owner shouldn’t have anything to do with whether you love or hate Waltrip himself, however. It is about pulling for a new car owner to step in and compete with the powerhouse teams of Hendrick, Roush, Childress, and Gibbs. Now in his sixth season running the organization full-time, Michael Waltrip has all three of his cars sitting in the top 10 in owner points after six weeks. It’s still early, but considering that Waltrip has never had a car make the Chase, he has to feel good about his chances of getting at least one of them in the postseason.
That’s where the rest of the “good” in this story comes from – the drivers themselves, starting with Martin Truex, Jr., who, in his third season with the team, has become the longest-tenured driver at MWR. Now in his seventh year in Sprint Cup competition, Truex had largely failed to meet expectations after winning back-to-back Nationwide Series championships in 2004 and 2005. Truex’s lone Cup victory came nearly five years ago, when he was driving for Dale Earnhardt, Inc. and he has just one Chase appearance, coming in that same year. When he left the No. 1 at the conclusion of the 2009 season, Truex was replaced by Jamie McMurray as he joined MWR. McMurray would have a dream season in his first year in Truex’s old ride, winning three races – including the Daytona 500 and the Brickyard 400 – while the two-time Nationwide champ managed just one top 5 and seven top 10’s in a very rocky season. But with a crew chief change midway through last year that saw an unknown Chad Johnston replace the veteran Pat Tryson, the performance slowly increased for Truex. He ended 2011 on a very high note, and that momentum has not left him this year. The veteran is tied for third in the standings on the strength of four top-10 finishes in the first six races. His worst result isn’t even that bad, a 17th at Las Vegas, and it has been a pleasant surprise to see the New Jersey native running up front, something we expected out of him six years ago.
Then there is Clint Bowyer, who currently sits ninth in the driver standings. Normally, this would come as no surprise as Bowyer has consistently been a Chase threat since arriving on the Cup scene in 2006. However, he became the odd man out at Richard Childress Racing last year when sponsorship could not be found for a fourth team, leaving Bowyer with few options in finding a new and competitive race car. He signed on with MWR driving for a startup No. 15, the third one added to the stable with sponsor 5-Hour Energy. Teaming up with crew chief Brian Pattie, himself looking for redemption after getting dumped by Juan Pablo Montoya Mr. Bowyer has been strong. His only bad race came at Phoenix, when a cut tire relegated him to a 30th-place finish, and other than that, his worst performance was a respectable 13th. Bowyer has not been spectacular, but he has been doing what he always did over at RCR, and that’s putting down consistent finishes. Many were afraid he would have trouble maintaining that consistency with a not-so established team; however, it looks as if Bowyer will be just fine.
Over at the No. 55 camp, there have been a couple good stories. Some questioned why Waltrip would get rid of David Reutimann, the guy who delivered the only two victories MWR has to date. But so far, it looks like he made the right call by replacing Reutimann with Mark Martin, who likely has played a huge part in the early success at the race team. With a driver like Martin, there is a lot Truex and Bowyer could learn from the 30-year veteran. Now 53, the oldest driver in an impact ride has been strong in his part-time schedule after struggling his last couple of years over at Hendrick Motorsports. In fact, the Arkansas native’s two top-10 finishes in just four races are just one shy of the total Reutimann had during the entire season last year. As for Martin’s fill-in driver, Brian Vickers has made the most of his opportunity. Much like Truex, Vickers hasn’t lived up to the potential he showed after winning the 2003 Nationwide Series championship at the age of 20. After a ride at Team Red Bull shut down, Vickers became unemployed and looked like he wouldn’t have the chance at running in Cup or Nationwide all year, at least with a competitive team. However, MWR’s deal with Elliott Sadler to drive the No. 55 for six races folded at the last minute, and Vickers suddenly found himself back in a race car. He made the most of it, impressing everyone by finishing fifth at Bristol after leading 125 laps. In fact, Vickers did so well, he was offered the ride for the two road course races in addition to the ones he had already agreed to.
The early-season success of MWR has been one of the best stories in 2012. You don’t have to like Waltrip to appreciate how the team has improved, either; it is a good thing for the sport to see a team go from backmarkers to Chase contenders in a few short years. It shows that there is still opportunity for someone to come and become a successful car owner, even in this era of superpower teams. If you look at Truex, Bowyer, and Vickers, you will see that MWR has also become a second chance for them to run well. It is another opportunity for Waltrip the car owner, too. After coming close to not even lasting a full year in 2007, he has turned his team around and is inching closer to being known as one of the top teams in NASCAR. He is still going to plug his sponsors to no end, but Waltrip is finally back in a feel-good story.
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