For the first time in the 2012 season, Michael Waltrip will leave the NASCAR on FOX pit studio, trading in his tailored suit for a firesuit to run in Sunday’s Aaron’s 499 at Talladega Superspeedway. The longtime Aaron’s pitchman is only running a limited Sprint Cup schedule this season, but that includes both Talladega races, where he took his last Cup win back in 2003.
Of course, Waltrip’s got a lot more on his plate than being a race car driver these days. He’ll still run now and again, of course, but he’s also one of the top owners on the Sprint Cup circuit. In fact, his Michael Waltrip Racing has gone from a jet fuel-tainted laughingstock in its 2007 debut to one of the deepest teams in the series this year,.
But going from Point A to Point B isn’t an immediate process, as any NASCAR driver would tell you; in fact, sometimes it involves going in circles for what seems like forever. MWR spent half a decade in the middle of the field, but thanks to wholesale changes over the past year, they’ve established themselves as a driving force at the front of the pack.
How did they do it? Here are seven major changes that led to drastic improvement in the MWR camp:
MWR was always a top organization within the Toyota camp, from serving as its flagship team during its Sprint Cup debut to offering technical support to competitors like JTG Motorsports and Germain Racing.
But according to Waltrip, it was early last year that the organization finally pushed for greater support from the manufacturer itself.
The team spent all of last summer building new cars with the help of Andy Graves, vice president of Toyota Racing Development’s chassis engineering wing, and began to introduce them to races late in the year.
Almost immediately, the move started to pay dividends for Martin Truex Jr., who scored his second-best finish of the year by coming home third in the season finale at Homestead.
This year, the difference has been even more striking: MWR cars only scored 16 top 10 finishes all of last year, and 16 in 2010. Through the first nine races of the season this year, they have 15.
When Michael Waltrip Racing first broke into NASCAR's highest level on a full-time basis in 2007, the cars and driver lineup looked like one of the best in the sport.
But with a brand-new Toyota racecar and without owners' points to guarantee them starting spots, Waltrip, 1999 champion Dale Jarrett and promising rookie David Reutimann often struggled to put their cars in the field. By the end of 2008, MWR was a two-car team, with Jarrett retiring and the UPS sponsorship heading to Roush Fenway Racing.
This year, however, MWR had its heart set on expansion, and after landing the biggest free-agent fish in the pond with Clint Bowyer, had the money to hire the personnel to expand properly.
Bowyer's team would join the two teams that stuck around since day one: Martin Truex Jr.'s team, which he took over from Waltrip in 2010, and the Aaron's team, which replaced Reutimann after last season with a combination of Waltrip, Mark Martin and Brian Vickers.
During their primes, Waltrip and David Reutimann were no slouches. But there came a time when both became expendable, especially as MWR looked to climb up the Sprint Cup ranks.
Waltrip made the difficult decision to replace himself with Martin Truex Jr. when the New Jersey native's contract with Earnhardt Ganassi Racing expired in 2009.
Reutimann was a race winner with MWR, scoring victories at Charlotte in 2009 and Chicagoland in 2010. But 2011 was a nightmare for the last remaining driver from MWR's 2007 debut, as he could only muster a 28th place finish in points.
Eventually, he was given the boot late last season when both Mark Martin and Clint Bowyer, two drivers with top-three Chase finishes on their resumes, became attainable.
In a phone interview last week, Waltrip said that one of the first things that he learned about forging a long-lasting partnership was to take care of people. If any driver in the sport would know about that, it's Waltrip, whose associations with Aaron's and NAPA Auto Parts have each lasted over a decade.
That philosophy has allowed him to bring in a major investor: Robert Kauffman, who bought into the team in October 2007 and helped him land sponsor 5 Hour Energy after its decision to move to the Sprint Cup level.
Originally, that deal had been for a minimum of 20 races, but strong performance and brand exposure convinced the energy-shot manufacturer to boost its sponsorship to full-season status. Save for this weekend's race at Talladega, 5 Hour Energy will back Clint Bowyer in every Sprint Cup race this season.
Gordon and Evernham. Johnson and Knaus. Martin Truex Jr. and Chad Johnston aren’t quite at that level of long-term chemistry and rapport, but over the past six months have established themselves as one of the top driver/crew chief pairings in the sport.
The two are close friends off the track, racing remote-controlled vehicles together and living across the street from one another.
That friendship off the track has led to success on it. From the penultimate round of last year’s championship through the first eight of this year, Truex scored more points than anybody in Sprint Cup.
That fact wasn’t lost on the organization, which proudly distributed a press release proclaiming it before last weekend’s race at Richmond. And while Truex has yet to break into Victory Lane this year, fifth in points through nine events is a pretty decent start.
When Mark Martin left Roush Fenway Racing after the 2006 season, he did so to take part in an abbreviated schedule of 24 races for Ginn Racing (later merged into Dale Earnhardt Inc.) for the next two years.
The shorter schedule afforded Martin the opportunity to recharge his batteries, so to speak, and he responded by nearly winning the Daytona 500 and leading the points before taking his first weekend off at Bristol.
This year has been more of the same. Martin has had the No. 55 near the front in most of his races, even qualifying on pole at Richmond.
The 53-year-old driver credits the reduced workload with helping him feel more energetic once again, and all signs point to him doing what he couldn't in that time with Ginn and Earnhardt: putting the car in Victory Lane.
You can have all the right pieces in place to contend, but sometimes you have to have a little luck on your side, too.
Last season, if Brian Vickers didn't have bad luck, he wouldn't have had any luck at all; feuds with multiple drivers and the lingering effects of an exaggerated piece in Maxim magazine left him on the sidelines for 2012.
Enter Waltrip, who decided to take a chance on Vickers in the No. 55 car for the eight races that he and Mark Martin wouldn't drive: both Bristol, Martinsville, and New Hampshire events, and both road course races.
In his first time out, at Bristol, Vickers led 125 of 500 laps and finished an impressive fifth; two weekends later, he qualified sixth at Martinsville.
He's motivated to earn his way back into a full-time Sprint Cup ride, whether with Waltrip or elsewhere, and like any former champion (he won the 2003 Busch Series), his talent isn't something to be underestimated.