In its sixth full season of Sprint Cup competition, Michael Waltrip Racing is making a push at becoming a powerhouse on NASCAR’s premier circuit.
MWR’s three-team operation has combined for five top 5s and 12 top 10s thus far in 2012. Spearheaded by Martin Truex Jr. and the No. 56 NAPA team, MWR finds its two full-time drivers — Truex and Clint Bowyer — in the top 10 in the point standings.
Third-year MWR driver Truex and crew chief Chad Johnston concluded the 2011 season on an uptick, recording four top 10s in the final five races. That momentum carried through the offseason as the duo have yet to finish worse than 17th this year. Included are finishes of third (Bristol), fifth (Martinsville) and sixth (Bristol) and a fourth-place spot in the championship standings.
“It’s been a good start to the season for us,” Truex says. “Everybody at MWR has done a nice job. For us, it’s just about coming here and trying to keep it rolling.
“We’ve had about 10 or 11 good races in a row going back to last year. That feels good. We just need to continue to build on that.”
Bowyer, a high-profile free-agent hire from Richard Childress Racing, has found immediate chemistry with new MWR crew chief Brian Pattie. Leading the No. 15 team, they have managed runs of sixth (Bristol) and fourth (Las Vegas) and sit 10th in the point standings. Their consistent start is the difference between an organization that once contended for wins three or four times a year, but now, each weekend.
“When I started at RCR, there was nothing to prove there,” Bowyer says. “As a driver, the only thing you can do is not screw up the opportunity. Here, I’m going to have to be part of moving on with a championship-caliber organization. That’s exciting. That’s a challenge I’m looking forward to.”
Key to the turnaround, though, was the hiring of former Richard Childress Racing crew chief and competition director Scott Miller as the organization’s Vice President of Competition.
Miller is a NASCAR veteran, having sat atop the pit box for both Bowyer and Jeff Burton while at RCR. He brought a level of expertise and confidence to his new role at MWR when he signed with the company late in the 2011 season.
“I was very, very pleasantly surprised with what I found when I came in the door,” Miller told the Associated Press. “Obviously, there are still things we are working on, but MWR was not in bad shape at all when I got here. They had started working on new cars and new chassis in the summer. We just needed to clean up and get a little more efficient at what we do.”
Mark Martin, one of the most respected drivers in the sport, also brought a level of professionalism not seen at MWR when, shortly before the season began, he agreed to pilot the No. 55 car for 25 races in 2012.
“What strikes me the most about Mark is, he’s like a kid in a candy store — he’s ready for a new challenge,” Miller says of the driver who finished third in Texas last weekend. “He thrived in that part-time schedule he was in (2007 and ‘08) and I think he really enjoyed himself doing that — not necessarily getting caught up in the Chase race or the championship thing — but just enjoying his craft of driving a racecar.”
Martin’s absence in two races so far has given way to one of the feel-good stories of the 2012 season: Brian Vickers.
A casualty of Red Bull Racing’s departure from NASCAR, Vickers will drive the car in eight Cup races while team co-owner Waltrip picks up four others.
Using his first appearance in the No. 55 as an audition (and a statement), Vickers led 125 laps at Bristol en route to a fifth-place run. Between Vickers and Martin, the No. 55 team has yet to finish worse than 18th, with four top 10s to its credit. Those performances find the team — along with the Nos. 15 and 56 — ranked in the top 10 in the all-important owners standings, guaranteeing their place in the starting lineup each weekend.
That’s a far cry from MWR’s first full season on the circuit in 2007, when its three teams stumbled through a miserable debut effort that found it going home after qualifying a total of 39 times.
“You see all the championship organizations — they don’t just have one bullet, they have two, three or four,” executive vice president Ty Norris says. “We have three bullets every week.
“I still pinch myself because it’s so hard to believe that we’ve got these great people working on the cars, a great attitude and great drivers to get it done. It’s a very exciting time for us.”
And of course, there’s Waltrip, whose two Daytona 500 wins make up for an otherwise unimpressive Cup Series record.
It was Waltrip who founded the organization, placing its first car in what was then the Busch Series in 1994 — finishing third at Bristol with fellow Owensboro, Ky., native Jeff Green at the wheel.
Waltrip’s passion for racing, marketing savvy and business sense — he brought in car enthusiast and Fortress Investment Group founder Rob Kauffman as an investor and co-owner in 2007 — have taken the program from a backyard operation to the thriving, multi-million dollar entity it is today.
“Michael has a lot of passion to give,” Norris explains. “Whether it’s a charitable event or NASCAR racing, the things he cares the most about he just pours his heart into it. He just becomes obsessed with it and the energy he brings when he talks about this (MWR) that gets everybody excited.”
At the rate Waltrip’s teams are going, there will plenty more to be excited about in the very near future.
by Matt Taliaferro
Follow Matt on Twitter:@MattTaliaferro