Michael Waltrip: From NASCAR's 'Worst Driver' to Exemplary Owner
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It was late August 2008 when Clint Bowyer had yet another run-in on the racetrack with fellow driver Michael Waltrip. When asked about the incident, Bowyer didn't even try to be diplomatic, mince words or hold back in his estimation of Waltrip.
"The worst driver in NASCAR, period," Bowyer said.
Yep, you knew exactly where Bowyer stood after that.
To his credit, when Waltrip was told about Bowyer's comments, he didn't try to engage in a war of words. He simply laughed it off, calling himself "the worst driver to win two Daytona 500s and an All-Star race."
Waltrip's response was as below the belt as Bowyer's words, only it was said with a smile on his face, knowing that no matter how bad he may appear in Bowyer's eyes, Waltrip had still accomplished a number of things that Bowyer only dreamed about.
And continues to dream about to this day.
After that little verbal exchange, it was pretty clear that neither Bowyer nor Waltrip would be sending each other Christmas cards or inviting the other to parties at their respective houses.
But NASCAR is a funny kind of sport: not just ha-ha funny, but also ironic funny. When Waltrip went looking for a young driver for his team to complement holdover Martin Truex Jr. and replace David Reutimann at the end of the 2011 season, he wanted someone competitive, passionate about the sport, a vibrant fan favorite and who would be a great pitch man.
Kind of like a mirror image of Waltrip, you might say.
At the same time, Bowyer was looking around for a new team when, due to lack of sponsorship, he learned he'd be the odd man out at Richard Childress Racing for 2012 as the four-team organization was going to shrink to just three teams...and Bowyer's was not one of them.
Enter 5-Hour Energy as a primary sponsor and, voila, once-bitter rivals were brought together and have gone on to become not only team owner/boss and driver/employee, but also unlikely best buds as well.
Even more ironic is how Bowyer flourished in his first season at Michael Waltrip Racing. Paired with crew chief Brian Pattie, who had been cast off from the same position with Juan Pablo Montoya at Earnhardt Ganassi Racing, Bowyer and Pattie quickly developed outstanding chemistry and communication, as if they had been together for years.
Bowyer ultimately went on have his best season ever in Sprint Cup competition, winning three races, recording 10 top five and 23 top 10 finishes. He led nearly 400 laps, finished on the lead lap in 27 races and had an average race finish of 10.9.
But perhaps the best part of Bowyer's season was his unexpected finish at season's end. While everyone else was watching Brad Keselowski and Jimmie Johnson battle it out down the stretch of the Chase for the Sprint Cup, Bowyer quietly yet effectively kept himself within striking distance.
And when the season was over, Bowyer actually overtook Johnson in the final standings after Homestead and finished a career-best second place in the standings, 39 points behind Keselowski.
I criticized Bowyer's crew for the brawl that occurred in the second-to-last race of the season at Phoenix when Jeff Gordon intentionally wrecked Bowyer as perceived payback for the season-long feud the pair had.
But now I understand why Bowyer's crew was so incensed. While I still don't condone their actions for the brawl, had Gordon not wrecked Bowyer, the latter potentially could have had a shot at Keselowski and the Cup throne in the season finale. Instead, he came up short.
That end result, though, laid the foundation for three key ingredients to flourish even more next season.
First, MWR became only the second Toyota team to have a driver finish second in the Chase (Denny Hamlin finished second, also 39 points back, to Jimmie Johnson in 2010).
Second, with Pattie and the entire crew coming back in 2013, Bowyer's performance this past season makes him one of the top contenders for next season's championship.
And third, in just six short seasons, MWR has gone from also-ran to one of the more powerful organizations in Sprint Cup...with a future that is only going to make it even stronger and more successful.
As we look ahead, 2013 shapes up better than any season ever has for Waltrip and his organization. Using Bowyer as a base, they're likely to come back even stronger next season. And Bowyer's success will likely rub off on Truex, making for what could become one of the most potent 1-2 teammate punches in the sport.
Let's not forget three other key folks.
First, there's ageless veteran Mark Martin. He returns for his 31st Cup season and will once again run a part-time slate of probably 24 races, like he did in 2012 in his first season at MWR. Martin has not only brought quiet leadership and inspiration, he's also become a valuable mentor for Bowyer and Truex.
When Martin was forced out at Hendrick Motorsports at the end of 2011 to make room for the incoming Kasey Kahne, many wondered if the career of Sprint Cup racing's elder statesman was over.
To his credit, Waltrip threw Martin a lifeline and he thrived under the exact situation and conditions he had sought to race under: doing it his way, on his schedule and for a team that was competitive.
Martin wound up with four top five and 10 top 10 finishes, and was one of the most prolific qualifiers in the series, earning four pole positions to boot.
Then there was Brian Vickers. When Red Bull Racing folded after the 2011 season, opportunities were few and far between for Vickers. But again, to Waltrip's credit, he also threw Vickers a lifeline, putting him in an MWR ride for eight races. Vickers was outstanding, earning three top five finishes and two other top 10s.
In fact, he almost pulled out a win in the his first race for MWR, the spring classic at Bristol, driving like he had never missed a beat. While Vickers will race full-time in the Nationwide Series for Joe Gibbs Racing in 2013, he'll also be back to run a partial Sprint Cup schedule for MWR as well. And don't be surprised if Waltrip ultimately puts Vickers into a full-time Cup ride by 2014.
Lastly, there's Michael himself. The younger brother of Hall of Famer Darrell Waltrip, Michael has spent a career of admittedly not being a great driver. But for what he lacks in wins, he more than makes up for it as one of the most intelligent minds and savvy businessmen in the sport.
When he formed MWR at the end of 2006, Waltrip surrounded himself with outstanding personnel, including former DEI boss Ty Norris. Waltrip also recruited Dale Jarrett to drive for him, along with Reutimann.
Not only that, Waltrip was able to sign some heavy duty and well-funded sponsors that other team owners could only just dream about, including Burger King, Aaron's, NAPA and UPS.
And while there admittedly were some growing pains along the way, not to mention embarrassments (such as the jet fuel incident in the 2007 Daytona 500), Waltrip stayed the course.
He had a vision to one day become the same type of successful Cup championship owner as a Joe Gibbs, Rick Hendrick or Richard Childress...and he certainly took a huge step towards entering that exclusive fraternity this past season.
The one thing about Waltrip that many people don't get is that what he's lacked as a winning driver, he's more than made up for with a shtick that admittedly and intentionally makes light of himself.
He acts the fool at times, does outrageous commercials, is a folksy and humorous TV analyst and acts like someone who just wants to have fun and not be too overly serious.
That, my friends, is one of the biggest charades in NASCAR history.
Rather, Waltrip is a Magna Cum Laude graduate of the School of Deceivingly Smart Businessmanship. He is always thinking and strategizing, working several jobs (team owner, corporate pitchman, TV analyst and yes, he still likes to drive a race car every once in a while) to promote himself and MWR Racing.
With the innate ability to make fun of himself, while also having an uncanny way of turning green to gold that has allowed Waltrip to not only succeed but thrive for nearly three decades in NASCAR, first as an admittedly so-so driver, but now as a shrewd and successful team owner.
One other point: Waltrip is not only one of the most loyal individuals to folks within his organization, he also gives and commands yin and yang loyalty from business partners and sponsors.
Sure, companies like Aaron's and NAPA could probably hook up with a more successful driver or team owner, but Waltrip gives those companies a platform, personality and return on investment that they just can't get with another organization.
It's the same with Toyota. Waltrip was one of the first team owners to sign on the dotted line when Toyota announced it would become the first foreign auto manufacturer to enter Sprint Cup Racing. While Waltrip took some initial hits questioning his patriotism and loyalty, again, he stuck with Toyota and Toyota stuck with him.
And now look where they're both at.
While many observers have said that Toyota's first Sprint Cup championship will likely be won by Joe Gibbs Racing (with either Kyle Busch or Denny Hamlin at the wheel) the 2012 season showed that MWR may actually become the first organization to earn that lofty prize for Toyota.
Potentially in 2013, with Bowyer or Truex behind the wheel.
As I said earlier, NASCAR is a funny/ironic sport.
But for someone who was once called the worst driver in NASCAR by the same person who now drives for him, it would appear that Michael Waltrip not only is the forgiving type of sort, he's also getting the last laugh on everybody.
Follow me on Twitter @JerryBonkowski
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