David Reutimann was the only driver in the history of Michael Waltrip Racing to take a checkered flag first in a Cup Series race before Sunday. With Clint Bowyer’s win, Toyota’s initial flagship race organization in NASCAR can now count three victories in its 5+ year history. The organization has been making strides and appearing on the verge of breaking into the win column this season since the beginning of the year; now Bowyer has broken into Victory Lane for his second race team. During the off-season–or technically, at the end of last season–Bowyer was brought into the MWR fold and Reutimann was ousted from his ride (essentially replaced by Bowyer and Mark Martin). Although Reutimann had never set the world on fire in the Cup series, his unceremonious dismissal from MWR stunk in the eyes of a sport where loyalty is becoming less and less common. Bowyer’s victory Sunday is going to make the decision by MWR management look more like a wise decision even if it did still reek of folding to sponsorship pressure.
Michael Waltrip has had Aaron’s on his race cars in some shape or form since 2000 and they’ve been on a MWR Cup car since 2008. When they came to Cup they put their name on Reutimann’s car and immediately incorporated Reutimann into their television commercials. No matter what they asked him to do, Reutimann took it all like a champion and managed to take average talent and average equipment and scored two victories. When he didn’t manage to pull the No. 00 into the Winner’s Circle in 2011, the management at Aaron’s decided they wanted someone different behind the wheel, and also decided to cut back on their sponsorship deal. In the end, MWR chose to take the only driver that had ever scored a Cup win in their cars and kicked him to the curb while bringing in a part time driver for his car and adding Bowyer to their lineup even though they didn’t have enough sponsorship to cover the full 36 race schedule for his car.
Although Martin Truex Jr. and Reutimann had shown occasional flashes of brilliance, they seldom brought home the results expected from a team that was receiving a large amount of help from their manufacturer. Truex had been unable to make it to Victory Lane in the two years under the MWR umbrella, notching one second place finishes and four top 5s. He hasn’t been able to win a race since 2007, but he has been able to degrade himself in a handful of NAPA commercials and clown around with his team owner during media tour stops and television spots.
The beginning of 2012 has seen Truex Jr., Martin, and Bowyer mash the gas and start turning out top 5s like they know what they’re doing. Truex has matched his top 5 total from the past two years combined. Martin, on a part-time basis, has equaled his top 5 total from last season when he was running in Hendrick Motorsports equipment. And now Bowyer is one top 5 short of his total from last season with the same number of victories. Although people very well might question the logic and techniques employed by MWR, there’s no question that they are finally starting to live up to the expectations that have been hanging over their head since Toyota tabbed them so many years ago as their first team in NASCAR.
From Bowyer’s side of things, this has to be a bit of a vindication as well. In his post race comments Sunday he basically admitted that he lost his ride at RCR. Rumors were that 5-Hour came to Childress with the same numbers that they offered to MWR last year to keep Bowyer there and the offer was rejected. Bowyer won three races the last two seasons but finished 10th in the Chase in 2010 and didn’t make it last season. Although there are many drivers in the garage that would love to win three races in two years–and owners who would love to have a driver do that for them–Richard Childress apparently wasn’t one of them. Fortunately for Bowyer, Waltrip was able to put a deal together that brought him over to the MWR family and, thanks to their successful start to the new season, has him sitting in the top 10 and looking like he’ll be contending for the title this season.
Michael Waltrip Racing is often associated with some of the goofball actions of its owner and might not be taken as seriously as some of the other teams in the garage, but this season has legitimized them in the eyes of many people who follow the sport. Prior to this year, the victories that they notched looked like happenstance occurrences that were an alignment of the stars more than the result of a well tuned NASCAR organization. This season, however, the victory seems like a direct result of development of a fledgling organization into a full blown team that will have a very real chance at competing for titles in the very near future.