For years, Michael Waltrip has been the clown prince of NASCAR, with commercials depicting the 2001 Daytona 500 winner showing up to race at the wrong track, and reading nasty fan mail mocking his performance. With a resume that pales in comparison to his brother Darrell, Waltrip has been a willing foil; the Bob Uecker of NASCAR, if you will.
That caricature had carried over from his career as a driver to his role as team owner. While manufacturer Toyota struggled, Michael Waltrip Racing became the Bad News Bears of NASCAR, complete with strange substances in the fuel, an accusation of a stolen swaybar, and desperately searching for enough speed to even make the show.
Something’s changed at Michael Waltrip. MWR has transformed from punch line to party crasher in NASCAR’s Chase for the Championship.
Clint Bowyer raised eyebrows when he announced he was leaving Richard Childress Racing for Michael Waltrip. All he’s done in his first at MWR is get as many wins (3) as defending champion Tony Stewart, and five-time champion Jimmie Johnson. With his win at Charlotte, Bowyer sits in fourth place, 28 points behind leader Brad Keselowski. Making the win sweeter was the fact that crew chief Brian Pattie and company took a car Bowyer was quite frustrated with and made a race winner out of it.
It’s not just Bowyer, either. Martin Truex has been consistent all throughout the season, averaging a solid 11.3 in the 2012 campaign to date. He may not have the wins; Truex has been something of a modern-day James Hylton- good enough to win and coming up just short, but you can’t help but feel victories are on the way for the two-time Busch Series champ.
Mark Martin’s best days may have passed, but never underestimate his value to the team with his veteran influence. The part-timer has four top tens in his last five starts, and has three poles on the season. When he’s not there, Brian Vickers has made a strong case for a full-time job with his performance behind the wheel, and except for the last lap match-up, the boss himself came darn close to swiping a win at Talladega.
How did they get here? No doubt GM Ty Norris plays a huge part, and Waltrip says perhaps the key piece in this rise to relevance for MWR is co-owner Rob Kauffman for putting meat on the bones of the operation. “ If you get right down to it Rob Kauffman deserves the credit because we went to Rob with a plan that cost a lot of money above budgets, a lot of money that I didn’t have. I live in an apartment above a pizza joint for gosh sakes. We told Rob we really felt like this plan would enable us to improve our cars so our drivers could go win races. And Rob endorsed the plan, said I want to win, I want to be up front, I want to be a contender, and it enabled us to build the cars that we have today that Clint is able to drive so wonderfully and Brian is able to make those calls. So I think the main thing that happened at MWR was we came up with a plan and Rob said, I’ll fund that plan.”
That is some serious talk from a guy who has made his mark being able to laugh at himself. With his team’s on-track performance, Michael Waltrip has muscled his way to a seat at NASCAR’s adult table. You get the feeling this isn’t a cameo appearance either.
Jim McCoy is a radio and television sports reporter and producer in Southern Oregon, where he makes his home with his wife and three children. Jim is also a radio play-by-play announcer for high school football, baseball and basketball. He was recently named Oregon Association of Broadcasters 2012 Sports Announcer of The Year- Non-commercial Division
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