One year ago, people were wondering just how crazy Clint Bowyer was. Bowyer, who had three top-10 points finishes in six full seasons with Richard Childress Racing, had announced that he would leave RCR for a third Michael Waltrip Racing car in 2012. Not only was Bowyer facing an uphill battle by signing on with a brand-new team, he was making a move to an organization that had never had anyone finish higher than 16th in points throughout its existence. In fact, in those five years, the organization had just two wins, noted more for its failures (think: 2007 jet fuel disaster at Daytona) and its uncertain future. There were rumors of sponsors leaving, and even if they didn’t, MWR was considered capable of no better than middle of the pack — period.
All in all, it wasn’t unreasonable to wonder if Bowyer had a screw loose somewhere.
And then, seemingly overnight, it all changed. MWR, which entered the 2012 season with Bowyer and Martin Truex, Jr. as full-time drivers, came out swinging. That duo, along with part-time Mark Martin collected top-12 finishes in February’s Daytona 500. Still, that was Daytona, the unpredictable roulette wheel of restrictor plates where anything can happen. This was still MWR, right?
Wrong. This was something else entirely.
Truex, Jr. was the first to make everyone take notice. Truex, who made the Chase in 2007 and finished that year 11th in points, had finished no higher than 15th since, no better than 18th with MWR. But suddenly, it seemed that Truex was a threat to win every week. By Kansas, eight races into 2012, Truex had a pole, six top-10 finishes, and was second in points. He didn’t reach Victory Lane, despite several close calls but as a consolation prize, it looked like Michael Waltrip might put a car in the Chase for the first time ever.
To make that total _two_ cars, in the total of one year? Nah. It just didn’t seem possible.
And yet it happened. When Truex did cool off, a little over the summer, here came Bowyer roaring right out of the gate. The No. 15 was in Victory Lane by June, with a win on the road course at Sonoma and the driver easily solidified a spot inside the top 10 in points. That’s right. Not looking quite so crazy now, was he?
Even the third car in the stable, a hodgepodge of driving assignments that included Martin, Michael Waltrip, and Brian Vickers showed its muscle no matter who was behind the wheel. Martin had some engine issues, DNFs that dropped his average finish to 15th, but his four top-5 results in 24 events was impressive for a car that had just one top 5 and an average finish of 22nd in all of 2011. His fill-in, Vickers, was nothing short of brilliant, putting the No. 55 fifth in his first race while leading a number of laps at Bristol in the Spring. In just eight starts, Vickers scored three top-5 finishes and five top 10s – better numbers than David Reutimann was able to post in 36 races the previous year.
By the time 2012 was halfway over, it was clear this organization was no longer a mid-pack team. Bowyer won again at Richmond, while Truex doggedly refused to go away in the point standings. So when the Chase drivers took their place on stage at Richmond, both those drivers were among them. MWR had put not just one, but _two_ cars in position to win the title. Joe Gibbs Racing didn’t do that. Neither did Penske Racing or Stewart-Haas.
The playoffs, then were supposed to cut MWR down to size. To a certain extent, that was true; Truex stumbled slightly down the stretch, finishing 11th overall. However, Bowyer got as high as third in points, and, while he wasn’t in contention for the Cup by Homestead, Jimmie Johnson’s broken drivetrain in the season finale moved Bowyer to second. Crazy? Who was crazy now? MWR, the team that many had thought was a dead end for Bowyer, finished higher in 2012 points than Hendrick Motorsports, Roush Fenway Racing, Joe Gibbs Racing… and just about all the teams that everyone had expected to walk all over them.
A year later, nobody is questioning Bowyer or anyone else about why they drive for Michael Waltrip Racing. The team will remain intact for this season, with drivers and crew chiefs coming back for another run. Only now, there is no doubt that this team can remain among NASCAR’s elite. And the goals have changed. A team that was once content with top-10 finishes now wants wins. They want to – _expect_ to – put two cars in the Chase again this year. That statement no longer sounds outlandish, though competition for those spots looks like it will be fiercer than ever. A year ago, people would have laughed at the thought of MWR as a title contender. Nobody is laughing now.
Truex, who was rumored to be on the hot seat with sponsor NAPA at the beginning of 2012, says that it’s teamwork that has made all the difference, bringing new ideas and renewed confidence. “I can honestly say I learned more last year than I probably have in the last four or five years combined — just how to be more a part of the team, how to be smarter. How to look at things a little bit differently. I had a blast working with those guys, and it was fun to be able to get the results we were looking for,” he said during the team’s Media Tour visit on Tuesday.
“We really just enjoy what we’re doing. At DEI, we were one team working here, one team working down the hill. We’d try to help each other if we could, but sometimes you were going different ways, and people were wanting to do their own thing, and it just wasn’t connected. We truly are one team with three cars. We’re not three teams; we’re one team with three cars. We have guys who work in the shop on my car that go on the road and work on the 55 and vice versa. It’s just a good, good thing.”
Sound familiar? That “teamwork” attitude, coming together for a common goal is one that has won Hendrick Motorsports a half-dozen titles over the last decade or so. Truex pointed out, though that even Hendrick has two shops, while MWR has just a single location where all work is done during the week. “There’s a reason they have been successful,” Truex says. “When you have two or three people with a bad attitude, they can drag a lot of people [down]. You’ve got to have everybody firing on all cylinders, working in the same direction. You can’t have people inside the organization racing against each other. Sure, on Sunday we all want to beat each other, we all want to win, but we’re happy when we finish second to a teammate. You have to be.”
Just a year after Michael Waltrip Racing faced a sea of uncertainty and questions of whether they would hold on to their sponsors, whether they could ever take things to the next level, those questions are answered. If they can stay on the same path in 2013, this won’t be a team where drivers would have to be crazy to jump ship for. Where taking things to the next level once meant finishing top 15 in points, now it’s not only putting two cars in the Chase, but contending for the Sprint Cup title.
Just a year ago, you’d have called that idea crazy. But now, we know better than to be fooled a second time.
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