How one judges the 2010 NASCAR Sprint Cup season for Michael Waltrip Racing depends on whether the person doing the judging sees the glass half empty or half full.
For the nattering nabobs of negativity in the glass-half-empty camp, it's easy to point out that the team hasn't made anything resembling the leaps forward it made in either 2008 or '09, two seasons when MWR loyalists could have legitimately argued that the team was the most improved in the garage. In its fourth season of existence, MWR failed to place a driver in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, the same as the team's first three seasons. And, like it or not, teams are judged on whether or not they make the Chase.
The much-ballyhooed new driver-crew chief combination of Martin Truex Jr. and Pat Tryson failed to produce a race victory in the first 24 races of the season, nor did Truex make the Chase. A season that began with a great deal of optimism suffered its fair share of hard knocks. One could argue, too, that based solely on points, David Reutimann didn't make the kind of leap forward expected from someone nicknamed “The Franchise.”
But the glass-half-full side is equally compelling: Reutimann won at Chicagoland Speedway, his first “real” race victory after winning the rain-shortened Coca-Cola 600 in 2009 by staying out under caution while 14 drivers in front of him pitted. In the first 24 races of this season, Reutimann posted five top-five finishes, exactly the number he had in his first three seasons combined. And Truex and Tryson were a marked improvement over Michael Waltrip's own results from 2007-'09.
The team has a well-stocked bench, too, with two drivers who have the chance to become stars: Trevor Bayne, who will run the full NASCAR Nationwide Series schedule and a handful of Cup races in 2011, and Truex's little brother, Ryan, who made his Nationwide debut earlier this year.
Just as important, in the most ruinous economic environment in recent memory, Waltrip and his minions have managed to keep the team fully funded and intact, something that in 2007 would have seemed impossible. In short, while the team may not have made the kinds of huge leaps it did in 2008-'09, it staked a place in the Sprint Cup garage. The team is real, it can contend and it's here to stay.
“To stand 10 feet tall, you say it only takes 10 feet,” says MWR executive vice president of business development and general manager, Ty Norris. “But for us, we had buried ourselves so deep in the ground, we were five-and-a-half feet toward being buried six feet under. We have had to go 15-and-a-half feet to get to stand 10 feet tall.”
Norris, a former small-town Delaware newspaper reporter who befriended the late Dale Earnhardt and came up through the ranks at Dale Earnhardt Inc., has been with Waltrip since the beginning. And it wasn't always pretty, to say the least. A toxic 2007 season began with a cheating scandal at Daytona, progressed through more than 40 DNQs by MWR's three cars and nearly ended with Waltrip himself going broke. Ultimately, Waltrip had to sell a major stake in the team to British-based investment banker Rob Kauffman, a move that saved the team from insolvency.
After surviving the harrowing 2007 season, MWR made steady improvements. Reutimann jumped from 39th in points in 2007 to 22nd in '08 to 16th last year, when he gave the team its first points race victory. Waltrip went from 22 DNQs in 2007 to none in 2008.
And now that he's no longer driving full time, Waltrip has settled into a nice niche of rainmaker, bringing in the much-needed sponsor dollars, as well as being the organization's head cheerleader. “I want our people to want our cars better than everyone else's,” he says bluntly. “That's my job.”
He also proved to be quite the management recruiter, bringing in Formula 1 veteran Steve Hallam to shore up the competition side of the business. And for 2010, the addition of Truex and Tryson, along with the hoped-for improvement of the quasi-team car of Marcos Ambrose seemed like it would move MWR from the middle of the pack to maybe the bottom of the lead group. It hasn't quite worked out that way, although it's come reasonably close.
The big failure, as noted, was the lack of an MWR car making the Chase. The big improvement is the cars are faster, though still a tick behind the front-running teams. And while it's tempting to overthink why the team didn't make the Chase, it actually comes to down to a couple of the most fundamental elements in racing: consistency and money.
In the first eight races of 2010, Reutimann had three engine failures, which left him 30th in points, and that proved a setback from which he could never totally recover. Truex had one engine failure early on, but what really bit him was a series of accidents not of his own making, which deprived him of good finishes at Darlington, Pocono and Infineon Raceway.
“The disappointing part is we haven't finished as good as we've run, and that's what we've got to work on and what we have been working on,” says Tryson, a veteran of Roush Fenway Racing and Penske Racing. “Some of the places where we were running really well, we got wrecked or a tire got away on pit road. A lot of little things have hurt us.
“Lately, we've been turning the corner and getting some of the finishes where we were actually running. We've got some more work to do, but we've gained a lot on it.”
With Truex and Tryson new to MWR for 2010, there was the still steeper learning curve of getting to know each other. That includes car construction at MWR, which was not the same as it was at Penske, Tryson's prior stop.
“You think because the cars are the CoTs, that they're all the same,” he said. “Well, they're not. There is quite a bit of difference, so we had to relearn them.”
“I think we forget it's our first year as a group,” adds Truex. “Pat and I are new together and so is our entire crew. So, in the circumstances, I feel like we are doing a great job but we're still coming
into our own as a team.”
Interestingly, Tryson compares MWR favorably with his previous employers. “As an organization, I think we are stronger than Penske,” he says. “Obviously, we don't have four cars, and Hendrick is still the team that everybody is gunning for, but I feel like we're further ahead than Penske, just because we've got more than one car that runs good. We have two cars that run good right now.”
Reutimann says his victory at Chicagoland in July was a major shot in the arm for the team, as was his second-place finish at Bristol Motor Speedway in August.
“It gives the guys back at the shop added enthusiasm, a little pep in their step, so to speak,” he observes. “They aren't able to be at the racetrack with you, but they're turning out your racecars – getting your stuff prepared. This helps them see what they're doing at the shop is really important. They're able to see the results on the racetrack. I think that's great for any race team.”
On the money side, MWR certainly has delivered on its bang for the buck: With two cars and two good – but not superstar – drivers, the team probably operates on a budget at least 30-40 percent less than a Hendrick Motorsports or a Roush Fenway Racing does, and that makes it hard to catch up.
Says Norris: “We've had a series of meetings over the last several weeks and that is the No. 1 thing we focus on: How do we close that gap to become championship contenders? It's a little bit of everything.
“It's certainly financial support. We need to make sure our engineering program continues to mature.”
Overall, Norris says he rates MWR's 2010 campaign as “a low 8 or a high 7,” which is probably accurate.
“We're definitely in the game,” he states, “and we're definitely one of the contenders. That's been a high point. But there's no question that we're disappointed that when the Chase starts, we won't have a participant in it. We feel like we've made it 85 percent of the way, but that last 15 percent is very, very tough and elusive. Some very good guys never make it.”
Tryson likes what he sees, too. “This organization, from what I can see is just going to get better and better and stronger and grow,” he says. “That's the biggest thing: we're just getting better. And we're going to be better next year than we are this year.”
AMBROSE IN NEED OF A CHANGE
Troubled Aussie will seek answers at Richard Petty Motorsports
Two-time Australian V8 Supercar champion Marcos Ambrose was expected to have a breakout campaign in the Michael Waltrip Racing-affiliated JTG Daugherty Racing in 2010. Alas, the expected improvement hasn't materialized and, in August, the Tasmania native announced he was bolting for Richard Petty Motorsports in 2011.
The year immediately got off to a bad start for Ambrose, who had engine failures in the Daytona 500 and at Fontana to open the season. And it went from bad to worse when he racked up back-to-back-to-back DNFs at Dover, Charlotte and Pocono. Add in the infamous debacle at Infineon Raceway – Ambrose had the race bought and paid for but stalled his car under caution and dropped to seventh – and it's clear why the usually affable Ambrose was so frustrated. Even his third straight Nationwide Series win at Watkins Glen couldn't take away the sting of failure to clinch a Sprint Cup victory.
Yet Ambrose is especially upset at his performances on the so-called “intermediate” tracks of 1.5 to 2 miles in length, where he finished 23rd or worse seven times in his first eight attempts this season. That led to the chicken/egg question: Is it Ambrose who can't race on intermediate ovals, or is it his crew who can't put the right car under him? It's a question that eventually troubled the man himself into making his decision to leave JTG for RPM.
“I have had occasions where I've qualified and run top-five speeds,” states Ambrose. “The other weekends where I don't run that well are a big question mark and that's really why I've made the decision to try and make a change. I feel like it's time to change my environment to see if it's me that's the missing link, or whether it's everything around me.”
But there's another contributing factor to Ambrose's decision to move to Richard Petty's team. Ford Motor Co. and Ambrose have a long relationship dating back to his days in his native land, and the automaker is delighted to have him back in the fold.